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Friday, April 20, 2012

Metropolitan Opera Preview: The Makropulos Case

Karita Mattila makes her bid for immortality.

The immortal diva: Karita Mattila.
Publicity photo for the Met's production of Tosca
by Brigitte Lacombe © 2006 The Metropolitan Opera.
by Paul Pelkonen
To an operatic novice, Leoš Janáček's The Makropulos Case may seem as remote and unapproachable as its enigmatic title character. However, this opera, which centers around a centuries-old lawsuit and humanity's obsession with eternal life, is one of the Czech composer's most satisfying creations. Jirí Behlolávek conducts.

The complex plot of The Makropulos Case (Věc Makropulos is the Czech title) delves into the art of opera itself. The central figure is the mysterious Emilia Marty (Karita Mattila), a world-famous opera singer who interjects herself into a long-lasting legal procedure stemming from a lawsuit: Gregor v. Prus. Her object: to obtain a copy of the chemical formula that her father invented, a formula that will extend her life another 300 years.

Science fiction? Maybe. Janáček based his libretto on the play of the same name by fellow Czech Karel Capek, the writer best remembered for coining the word "robot" in his play R.U.R.. The opera shifts through the composer's frequently visited sonic world: minor-key chords interjected with delicate fabrics of wind and strings. The voices are always to the fore, as maximum clarity is essential to Janáček's style.

Ms. Mattila is just the third singer to take on the difficult title role at the Met. The opera was first performed at the Met (in English) in 1996, with soprano Jessye Norman in her last role at the opera house.

The production's premiere was scheduled for Jan. 5, 1996. On that night, tenor Richard Versaille, playing the role of Vitek died onstage after singing his first line ("You only live so long.") While up on a ladder, Mr. Versaille suffered a heart attack and died, plummeting to the stage.

The curtain fell swiftly, and the performance was cancelled.

The next show was scheduled for January 8, and was cancelled because of a blizzard. The opera finally premiered on January 11, 1996. Further revivals of Makropoulos in 1998 and 2001, were sung in Czech and featured Catherine Malfitano as Emilia Marty.

Recording Recommendation:
There are a few recordings of this opera. Most are in the catalogue under the title Věc Makropulos. If you don't speak Czech, the English-language set (also conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras) is an excellent choice.

Vienna Philharmonic cond. Sir Charles Mackerras (Decca, 1978)
Emilia Marty: Elizabeth Söderström

Emilia Marty was the great Elizabeth Söderström's favorite role. She is marvelous here in the midst of an almost all-Czech cast, carefully conducted by Janáček expert Sir Charles Mackerras. This is part of the English conductor's cycle of major operas by this composer, and an essential. It is also available as part of a budget box set of the operas that also includes The Cunning Little Vixen, Jenufa and Kat'a Kabanova.

English National Opera cond. Sir Charles Mackerras (Chandos, 2008)
Emilia Marty: Cheryl Barker

For the listener not fluent in Czech, this English language version (made at the English National Opera) provides a valuable gateway into understanding  Janáček's complex masterpiece. Cheryl Barker hits some astonishing high notes as Emilia, and draws real pathos in the Tristan-like finale. A live recording with minimal audience noise and a fine supporting cast.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.