Our historical era has a love affair with the undead. Anne Rice, Stephanie Meyer & Co, True Blood, Let the Right One In, I Dracula… the list goes on. Wishful fantasy of a quickly aging society? No wonder an opera about an undead woman – The Makropulos Case – is hip right now. She's not a vampire though – she's an immortal opera diva. Born in 1585, according to my dictionary, she's just about the same age as the word quirk.
Definition of "Quirk": Abrupt twist or curve
Czech composer Leos Janacek started his before-last opera in 1926, and it premiered in the year of his death, in 1928. It has rarely been performed until post-modern times. Janacek wrote the libretto himself, adapting a comedy of the same name by Karel Capek and giving it a surprising new ending. The setting is urban 1922, a lawyer's office, back-stage at the opera, a hotel room -- quite unlike Janacek's most famous operas, Jenufa and Katia Kabanova, which are set in the deep hinterland of Slavic villages. "Vec Makropulos" has been translated as the Makropulos "thing", "affair," or "secret." The plot turns around a court case, therefore the English title The Makropulos Case.
Quirky case history:
In 1922, the heroine of the opera is a 337 year-old primadonna, Elina Makropulos of Crete, alias Eugenia Montez, Ekaterina Myshkina, Ellian Macgregor, Elsa Müller…, and finally Emilia Marty. At the tender age of 16, Elina Makropulos became the guinea-pig for a longevity exlixir invented by her father, court alchemist of Emperor Rudolf II. Emilia Marty looks back on an international career with many more aliases and innumerable men at her feet (imagine the countless high-drama fake deaths and memorial ceremonies of a diva who has to disappear in order to restart her career every few decades). The elixir, however, only lasts 300 years, and no matter that the figures never add up in this ironic pot-boiler mystery, Emilia Marty knows her time is up unless she finds her dad's old recipe and has another go at it.
Unfortunately the alchemist's formula is stuck away with the will of one of the diva's lovers, Baron Prus, dead in 1827. A generation-long battle over this will, Gregor vs. Prus, is still being waged in Prague, a hundred years later, pitting the latest Baron Prus against a certain Albert Gregor, and only Emilia alias Elina knows that they are all related: once upon a time, the primadonna Ellian Macgregor bore the unwitting Baron Prus a son named Ferdinand Gregor. Emilia Marty is going to intervene and take over the case in order to get hold of the "note" attached to the will.
Quirk of fate:
Once the diva gets her hand on the formula for another 300 years of life, paying for it with her sexual favors, she doesn't want it any more. Act III is basically one extended monologue about the ennui of living, the boredom of sex and men, the tedium of time and the relief of dying.
Tragic quirk of fate:
On the opening night of a 1996 Met production of The Makropulos Case, tenor Richard Versalle fell off a ladder in the law office scene. He died onstage just after singing the line, "Too bad that you can only live that long."
Peculiar quirkishness of femmes fatales:
Getting an exotic start with Eve, Salome and Cleopatra, they truly emerged in France, where their name was coined (the American term "vamp" historically lost the battle for preeminence, just like freedom fries could not defeat pommes frites). Clever, mysterious, glamorous, sexually fearless, sometimes evil, sometimes elusive, always irresistible, they dominate men and drive them crazy. Opera around the last turn of the century had a particularly creative love affair with them: Carmen, Salome, Kundry (in Wagner's Parsifal), Samson's Delilah and of course Lulu… Elina Makropulos is another Belle Dame Sans Merci and it is fitting that Finnish soprano Karita Mattila, who recently was a rage as Salome (at the Met), sings and plays her. She does it with a wonderful degree of divadom and sexy glamor that comes to Mattila so naturally, carried by her radiant, pearly-silver voice, that she can afford to underplay it, making fun of the diva mythology, herself, and the men at her feet. She clowns about, goes into one of her world-famous splits on the floor, then momentarily collapses like a rag doll or almost-corpse, her 337 years abruptly catching up with her. She brings back the comedy of the original play, with a distinctly Czech, absurdist, noir humor that highlights the edgy harmonies in Janacek's score.
Elina Makropulos has been famously sung by aging opera stars who once upon a time sang Salome and then, with age, took permission from the 337 year-old heroine to shriek more than sing the role. Terresa Stratas and Bayreuth darling Anja Silja from Sweden (the first stark-naked Salome of history) were a case in point. Silja played her like the Norma Desmond of the opera stage. (I wish I knew how Jesse Norman with her enormous heft and glorious voice did it, but I don't.) Others like Catherine Malfitano (in Chicago and at the Met) went for the undying femme fatale predatory sex appeal. But Mattila, at the age of fifty, achieves something new in her first-ever take on the role. Under Olivier Tambosi's direction she gives a post-modern portrayal of a woman who assumes absolute power and self-possession without even straining a sexual muscle. Making love to her, Baron Prus finds out in his one-night bargain for the alchemist's formula, is "like making love to a corpse." Yes sir, no man can get anything from her that she doesn't care to give. "Sex isn't worth it," she says. Nothing is worth it. Certainly not the men's desire for her.
San Fancisco's Makropulos Case is a one-woman show, and the quirk about it is that there is not much regret about that. The men on San Francisco's opera stage are like puttie, the essence of inconsequential, offering no temptation to the woman who has seen it all. Mattila fills every moment and inch of the stage as if she had sung this role for 337 years, and the only man at her level is Czech conductor Jiri Belohlavek. The Janacek expert, founder of the Prague Philharmonia and Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony, led the full-sized orchestra and men's chorus to a rousing performance.
Musical vagaries, but are they?
Vagaries are another way to say quirks, of course. And Janacek's music is filled with them. There are no Slavic folk music elements here. The composer plays the exciting edge of the modern harmonic territory without sliding into the atonal – not unlike the late Strauss of Elektra and Salome or certain Stravinsky works. His brilliant ouverture sounds like a time traveler's fleeting memories of the past, with Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, Dvorak moments drifting by, as if Ilena Makropulos alias Emilia Marty were remembering the places of her recent "incarnations."
The third act is almost entirely a monologue. Sitting on her bed in her hotel room, beleaguered by the participants of Gregor vs. Prus, Emilia Marty is a bit tipsy: "I haven't been a lady for a long time. Let's have a drink." Mattila discovers her change of heart: "What the hell do I care about my chidren?... Whether one is alive or dead makes no difference at all…. You fools live in bliss for the simple reason that you are going to die." For the first time in this opera, big feelings are let loose in fantastical lyrical arcs and phrases, effortlessly rendered in the soprano's radiant high register. "In the end it is all the same, singing and silence…" Her philosophy is clearly the composer's very own: after all, Janacek was writing the opera with the wisdom of 69 years of life and, perhaps, the premonition of his soon-to-follow death.
Everyone has their little quirks – even the supertitles:
The history of supertitles started in the last 2 decades of the 20th century — a blessing for those who find words in opera as important as the music; a curse for those who claim the true approach to opera is: know thy libretto by heart! The Straussian Capriccio-style battle was won handsomely the moment Wagner's Bayreuth adopted the new technology, after all. Without it, the new wave of world-wide telecasts from operas like the Met, La Scala, San Francisco Opera etc. would never have happened. This said, supertitles can be a problem. This was noted in my review of Werther, when a director changed them to better serve his quirkesque concept. They are a problem, once again, in the Makropulos Case. It's not their fault, it's Janacek's libretto that is at fault. Perhaps a Czech audience would have caught enough of the quid pro quo of Act I, where the court case is debated, without having to read along. As the case spans a whole century there is just too much detail. Add in a number of confusions with names and facts, and unless you know the opera well, you are forced back into the Capriccio dilemma: either choose the words and try to follow the twists of the storyline, or listen to Janacek's music that accompanies the men's arguments and the diva's interruptions with ironic sounds of biting and tinkering, as if ticking through a Kafkaesque maze.
Now make an abrupt turn and repeat the segment "Musical vagaries."