Life sentence

makropulosFifty years after the U.S. premiere of Leos Janácek’s The Makropulos Case at the San Francisco Opera, the piece made a successful return to the same building this month. Featuring a daring performance by leading soprano Nadja Michael and sung in the original Czech, Janácek’s disconcerting commentary on youth and immortality received a full-throated performance. 

Based on Karel Capek’s surreal play of the same name, Janácek’s three-act The Makropulos Case encompasses the final days in the life of Elina Makropulos, an opera singer sentenced to three centuries of itinerant youth by consuming an elixir of life. As the opera begins, Makropulos, 337 years old and living under the alias Emilia Marty, senses the elixir wearing off. In an elaborate attempt to find the recipe, she intervenes in the legal case of Gregor v. Prus, involving an inheritance belonging to her great-great-great grandson Albert Gregor.

Knowing that the recipe is hidden at the ancestral home of Gregor’s opponent, Baron von Prus, Marty tries to obtain it by seducing the baron. In a remarkable third act, ensnared by a complex web of lies and wearying of everlasting life, Marty reveals her true identity for the first time. As she does, her aging quickens, and she transforms before our eyes into a vulnerable and tragic heroine. As she dies, she decries the injustice of a perpetual youth that has sapped her life of all meaning.

Janácek’s musical setting perfectly mirrors the flow of Capek’s story, a tale leading from bewildering complexity to single-minded emotional ardor. In the first two acts, Janácek writes in his typical mature compositional style, favoring small repeated melodic patterns and dramatic changes of affect that create a sense of dislocation and detachment. His orchestration favors high woodwinds (his score calls for four flutes!), and often uses harsh violin and trumpet doublings to create a shrill and sarcastic sound similar to that of his contemporary, Serge Prokofiev.

In the third act, however, Janácek manages to transform the musical banalities of the first two acts into a blossoming of warmth and humanity worthy of any of the high romantics. At the conclusion of the third act, several solo violins coalesce into a major chord of ecstasy as Emilia sits up delirious on her bed for her final soliloquy. At that moment we realize that the disconnected first two acts of the opera were merely a long prologue—a necessary introduction bringing us to this moment of bare humanity.

Michael’s nuanced interpretation of Emilia’s character demonstrated a close identification with the musical and dramatic complexities of the role. Demanding both in its vocal acrobatics and emotional range, the part of Marty requires effortless self-assurance and aloofness (nearly bordering on sociopathy) in the first two acts, while the third act demands the very opposite: vulnerability and pathos. Michael was well up to the task.

In the opening acts, she masterfully channeled the Janácekian femme fatale, holding forth—often standing on tables, chairs and other furniture—to belittle the men surrounding her. Her sarcastic vocal delivery managed, even while negotiating Janácek’s thorny melodic lines, to provide exactly the right amount of ambivalent world-weariness. Her insensitive quips (including her response “a lot of men commit suicide,” in reply to Gregor’s threat to kill himself out of unrequited love for her) were eviscerating, and her sharply-articulated pitched laughter beautifully matched the shrillness of Janácek’s top-heavy orchestration.

But Michael’s mastery shone even more brightly in the third act: as Janácek’s story blossomed from law office curiosity to tragic melodrama, Michael’s façade of detachment melted into tenderness, and her stilted, detached singing into arcing melodic warmth. Her force of personality and vocal dynamism made the final scene—in which Emilia poured out her plight while standing on her bed, with the four main male roles encircling the bed and staring awestruck up at her—feel entirely natural.

makropulos-2The palpable transformation in Michael’s vocal and acting style underlined the opera’s central irony: as the potion that had sustained her for three centuries of excruciating life wore off, the life and humanity she had long since abandoned flowed back into her.

Of the supporting cast around Michael, the highlight was tenor Charles Workman as Gregor. Workman’s indefatigably earnest lyricism provided a welcome foil to Michael’s staccato sarcasm in the first two acts. He projected his voice warmly over the orchestra and succeeded in creating resonant long phrases even amid Janácek’s prickly orchestration.

Stephen Powell, playing Workman’s opponent in the lawsuit, delivered a solid—if less remarkable—baritone performance. While vocally strong, his somewhat rigid portrayal of the character of Prus did not always offer the variation in vocal color and emotional affect that the role required. His reaction to Marty’s indifference over his son Janek’s suicide, for instance, seemed almost inappropriately banal.

In the role of Gregor and Prus’ lawyer Dr. Kolenaty, Dale Travis turned in a convincing bass/baritone performance, negotiating effectively between the powerful personalities surrounding him.

Among the lesser roles, Julie Adams in the role of Kristina—the daughter of Kolenaty’s law clerk and an aspiring opera singer infatuated by Marty—was particularly remarkable. Her youthful lightness and ardent lyricism coupled with Workman’s to provide a modicum of warmth amid the emotional detachment of the first two acts.

Mikhaiolvsky Theater conductor Mikhail Tartarnikov’s leadership of the SF Opera Orchestra (his debut with that ensemble) brought out the orchestra’s best, negotiating tricky intonation and rhythmic challenges with ease. Those parts of the orchestra to which Janácek turns most to effect his emotional climaxes—high woodwinds and inner voice strings—particularly contributed to a compelling performance. The orchestra occasionally struggled, however, with balance between stage and pit.

The rapid activity of Janácek’s orchestra parts, along with his frequent recourse to heavy winds and brass, meant a constant battle to prevent midrange voices (particularly tenor) from being swallowed up. There were a few moments in which Tartarnikov lost that battle. On the whole, however, he delivered a musical and highly polished performance.

Behind the unfolding drama, Olivier Tambosi’s staging created a highly successful atmosphere of starkness and surrealism. A large, garishly-projected wall clock stood on the back wall of the stage throughout the performance, reminding the audience of the central question of Makropulos: whether living with limited time—and the consequent inevitability of death—might be a prerequisite to truly living. The set of the first act—Dr. Kolenaty’s law office—provided a whimsical and mysterious spin on the typical cluttered office set.

Particularly symbolically effective, however, was the background of the third act, which placed Marty’s bed (around which much of the action takes place) at the base of a wide and twisting ramp that disappeared behind the stage. As Marty went through her death throes, by turns delirious and despairing, the set placed her physically on the very precipice of death.

This production of Makropulos, a difficult composition both conceptually and musically, not only deftly negotiated the dangerous shoals of Janácek’s composition but thrived in them. On the strength of Michael’s performance alone the opera is highly recommended, but a polished orchestral performance and convincing work by the supporting cast made this performance a triumph.

Photos: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Debuting parterre critic John Masko, a graduate student at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, was the recipient of the 2016 Stephen and Cynthia Rubin Institute for Music Criticism “Everyone’s a Critic Audience Review Prize.”