Mattila provides ageless artistry in Met’s masterful “Makropulos Case”
A sexy heroine endowed with the sort of supernatural powers currently fashionable on TV. Bickering lawyers the white-collar audience can relate to. And a denouement that turns it all into a deeply moving reflection on the very meaning of life. If it didn’t already exist, it’s the sort of thing opera houses would try to commission from one of today’s hot young composers, a work that holds a mirror up to our celebrity-obsessed society.
As it is, Leoš Janáček’s The Makropulos Case, which the Metropolitan Opera revived with the formidable Karita Mattila in the lead role Friday night, has been around for the better part of a century. That the 1926 opera is so rarely performed is a shame — though the Met might have reason to be nervous considering its company history. The house premiere in 1996 (in the same production by Elijah Moshinsky) made history for the wrong reason when Richard Versalle, the tenor singing the role of the court clerk Vitek, fell to his death from a sliding ladder after singing the line “too bad you can only live so long.” The second scheduled performance had to be canceled because of a blizzard. And when the production finally resumed, with Jessye Norman (singing in English) in the lead role, reviewers were for the most part unimpressed.
The current revival, like that of 2001 featuring Catherine Malfitano, uses the original Czech text. It’s a distinction of more than academic significance, since Janáček’s music is so closely modeled on the melodic pattern of Czech speech. And the action is driven by dialogue — wordy, naturalistic, sometimes legalistic dialogue — which roots it in the tradition of spoken theater. With the current cast of fine actor-singers, and Czech conductor Jiří Bělohlávekj in the pit, the effect was a streamlined performance that culminated in an emotionally gripping last scene.
The story centers on Emilia Marty, an opera diva in pre-World War I Prague with a secret: she is 337 years old. Her father, it is revealed in the final act, was the court physician to Emperor Rudolf II, and used her as a guinea pig for an elixir of life he was developing for his master. It was sufficiently powerful to keep her alive through more than three centuries and several identities — all of them irresistible to men. Now, however, its effect is wearing off, sending Marty on a desperate search for the original formula. Since she suspects it to be tucked in among certain legal documents, this leads her to meddle with a court case around an inheritance dispute between the Gregor family and that of Baron Prus, erstwhile lover of one of Marty’s previous incarnations.
One by one, the characters — lawyers, plaintiffs, the lawyer’s young singer-daughter, the daughter’s boyfriend — fall under the erotic spell of Marty, even as she makes no bones of her contempt for them. But in the final scene, as she at last comes into possession of the formula and reveals her secret, Marty expresses her envy of regular mortals: only death, it turns out, gives meaning to life. Choosing to die rather than take out another 300-year lease on life, Marty’s last act is to give the formula to the young singer, who sets it on fire.
Mattila may be one of the few dramatic sopranos today who can do justice to both the blasé femme fatale of the first two acts and to the emotional vulnerability of her character’s final scene. Her voice can be cool and aloof or bitingly sarcastic, as when she taunts the love-struck Prus in Act II. When, in the end, she chooses death and humanity over eternal, impersonal, youth, her voice becomes warm and vibrant, even a touch smoky, as if to allow her true age to catch up with her. She looked the part, too, in Dona Granata’s costumes, including a softly tailored blue power suit revealing just the right amount of satin and lace underneath.
Amid the quality cast, two men stood out. Alan Oke brought a smooth, luminous tenor to the part of Vitek (and thankfully was not made to climb the ladder, scooting around on a wheeled office chair instead). Baritone Tom Fox sang the part of his boss, Dr Kolenaty, with intelligence and authority. The lovely soprano Emalie Savoy made a fine house debut as the young ingénue Kristina, as did Danish bass-baritone Johan Reuter as Jaroslav Prus. In a cast characterized by musical judiciousness, only Richard Leech, as Albert Gregor — a late substitute for the ailing Kurt Streit — stood out for over-singing top notes and generally trying too hard.
Under Bělohlávek, the Met orchestra provided textural clarity and plenty of color, making the most of Janáček’s extraordinarily well-crafted score. Led by Mattila’s authoritative performance, the production made one of the strongest cases yet for this masterpiece of music theater.
The Makropulos Case will be performed at the Metropolitan Opera House on May 1, 5 (matinée), 8 and 11. (212) 362 6000; metopera.org