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Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Opera Review: Formula One

Karita Mattila burns up The Makropulos Case.
Absolutely fabulous: Karita Mattila in The Makropulos Case.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2012 The Metropolitan Opera.
by Paul Pelkonen
Even as the Metropolitan Opera season winds down, there is still room on the schedule between all those performances of the Ring for interesting revivals. Such a one is Elijah Moshinsky's ill-starred 1996 production of Leoš Janáček's The Makropulos Case.

Ms. Mattila brings a unique sensuality and world-weariness to Emilia Marty, the central character of this drama. A deeply philosophical drama wrapped in a mystery wrapped in a legal procedural, this is one of Janáček's most memorable and moving operas. As the 337-year old opera star burnt out from having near-immortality, the Finnish singer was a captivating presence, exercising a mysterious fascination over every character in the opera.

The thorniest moment of Tuesday night's performance (the second of this run) had nothing to do with singing. In Act II, Ms. Mattila was mounting the wooden Sphinx statue that dominates this act (which takes place after-hours on the stage of an opera house.) In high heels and a long poison-green gown, the singer stumbled on the steps. She regained her balance, and  sprawled herself across the Sphinx's lap, nonchalantly taking off her heels and tossing them aside. The rest of the act was (like her Dance of the Seven Veils in Salome) performed barefoot.

This cool stage presence was matched by some glorious singing, especially in the Act II scene with her slightly demented former lover Hauk-Sendorf (the character tenor Bernard Fitch. The finale of the opera, a kind of Liebestod where the singer reveals her identity and the truth about her age before expiring, was movingly sung and tenderly accompanied. As she uttered the final "Elina Makropulos", Ms. Mattila floated the phrase pianissimo. The notes seemed to shimmer and hang in the air, at last revealing the diva to be an ordinary woman terrified of imminent mortality.

This revival surrounds Ms. Mattila witha strong cast of familiar faces and new vocal talent. Tenor Matthew Plenk made a strong impression as the young Janek Prus, whose obsession with Emilia/Elina leads to suicide. Christopher Feigum's house debut as his father Baron Prus featured a sturdy instrument in this complex part.

It is impossible to write about this production without remembering its aborted opening night, which ended with the heart attack, fall and death of tenor Richard Versalle as the clerk Vitek. Here, the role was taken by talented character singer Alan Oke. Juilliard Opera veteran Emalie Savoy was also moving as his daughter Kristina, touching off the final conflagration that ends the opera.

For a relatively short opera, Janacek's score requires an enormous orchestra. This was ably conducted by Jiri Belohlávek. The prelude sounded muddled rhythmically, but the big themes were stated with clear and noble purpose. The playing got even better in the later acts, rising to a huge climax in the final scene. The death of Emilia Marty, as presented here, was an immolation to be proud of.
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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.