The Makropulos Case
Leos Janacek should be an inspiration to old people everywhere.
He didn’t begin writing operas until he was in his late forties, didn’t gain any real fame until he was in his early sixties and did some of his best work as he passed into his seventh decade.
The Metropolitan Opera on Thursday, in an inspired revival of his "The Makropulos Case," proved the greatness of the composer, and the lesson that genius can be the final accumulation and distillation of knowledge and talent won through long life and constant application.
Yet, ironically, the opera’s subject is the despair which must follow from near immortality, and its message is that you can live too long. Stranger still, during the first presentation in 1996 of this Met production designed by Elijah Moshinsky, tenor Richard Versalle died on stage of a heart attack while singing the line: "Too bad you can only live so long."
This current revival was thankfully not so pointed in underlining the truth of that remark. But it was memorable nonetheless.
Many stars aligned to produce a superlative evening of musical drama.
Not the least of these was the opera’s actual star, the performer who takes on the titular role of Elina Marty (née Elina Makropulos), a world-weary opera diva who is in the last days of a life that has spanned 337 years. The part requires a larger than life singer with pipes to match, and it mostly had this in soprano Karita Mattila.
The statuesque Finn is not singing with the almost unreal power and loveliness that she did when she first took this role on six years ago, and she would better persuade as a femme fatale if she lost a stone (or two), but she still has a commanding voice and a wealth of stage presence. At the very least you’re apt to be reminded of W. C. Fields’ comment about Mae West: "A plumber’s idea of Nefertiti." Very tall, very round and gifted with a face full of dramatic well-formed planes, Mattila has a certain lush sex appeal.
In some ways though, my favorite in the fine cast was Richard Leech in the part of her descendant and would-be lover, Albert Gregor. Leech has managed to craft a career as an admired but not beloved tenor, a performer more frequently respected for his acting than for his singing. But on the night I saw the production he was in very good voice. And in playing a man who is made greatly distraught by his love for a woman he does not know is one of his own progenitors, his performance was raw and vital.
More impressive still was the house’s great orchestra under Czech guest conductor Jiri Belohlavek.
Equally excellent was Anthony Ward’s clever set designs. This includes a first act set that amusingly exaggerates the look of an office from the era of the Chrysler Building, and a second act stage that includes a relic from an overblown opera production in which Elina performs. This giant but witless sculpture of the Sphinx tells us what Ward supposes of the opera house, plainly presenting Aida, where Elina performs.
Janacek’s musical approach featured brief musical phrases that string together through recitatives which are mostly without revealing arias -- until the opera’s very end. This serves through the opera’s first two acts to keep Mattila’s character as musically mysterious as she is dramatically enigmatic. But when her end comes, she opens her heart in one of the grand moments of twentieth century music.
Mattila was very much up to it.
Whether they were celebrating the character or the singer, the audience promptly erupted in loud, resounding cheers.