Composer: Leos Janacek
Conductor: Jiri Belohlavek
Producer/Director: Elijah Moshinsky
Emilia Marty: Karita Mattila
Albert Gregor: Richard Leech
Jaroslav Prus: Johan Reuter
Vitek: Alan Oke
Dr Kolenaty: Tom Fox
Just when I thought my 2011-2012 Met season was over, there came an unexpected ticket to The Makropulos Case treating me to an even more unexpected vantage point… six rows from the stage! Maybe not the very best seat in the house – You can indeed get too close to even a good thing – but definitely an unusual and interesting experience in perspective. Moreover, although I was unfamiliar with the opera itself, I have always found Janacek’s music compelling and Karita Mattila’s voice fabulous, so my friend Nicole certainly did not have to twist my arm to accompany her last Tuesday.
From the little information I had had time to gather, I vaguely knew that the story was about a legal case and a 337-year-old diva. It had also become clear that the performance would pretty much revolve entirely around the soprano, which means that without the right one, we would be in for a long evening, even if the performance itself would be relatively short. It seemed, however, that the perfect leading lady had been found, and this assumption was confirmed as soon as I got to the Met, when I caught a few minutes of Karita Mattila’s legendary Salome playing in the gift shop.
Among Janacek’s operatic œuvre, The Makropulos Case may not be as popular as Jenufa, and it is not hard to understand why. While the character of the supernaturally old Emilia Marty is intriguing and complex, the intricacies of the legal affair are not that easy to follow. But in fact it does not really matter because everybody’s attention is focused on the mysterious heroine and the mesmerizing power she holds over the other protagonists. And that’s plenty.
Heralded as an extraordinary singer even before she set foot onstage, Karita Mattila’s Emilia Marty managed to confidently meet all expectations when she eventually showed up. Her sculptural body clad into a stylish blue outfit and enhanced by mean stilettos, her icily blond hair framing an impeccably made-up face, she effortlessly exuded bewitching charisma galore even before opening her mouth. As soon as she started singing, it immediately became clear that she was as much in control of her viscerally expressive voice as of her inherently glamorous presence. She may not have made her coolly manipulative character particularly relatable - That was not the point anyway -but she sure made her a fascinating piece of work. All throughout the final scene, during which she invoked her tumultuous past while facing a de facto life or death situation, she blazingly conveyed such an incredible range of emotions that she turned an already daunting challenge into a genuine tour de force for the ages. I simply cannot imagine anybody else in that role.
But even a truly riveting diva does not an opera make, and it is only fair to point out how well supported she was. Two of the numerous men losing their minds over her were returning Met tenor Richard Leech, effectively impersonating a hopelessly infatuated (and hopelessly in debt) Albert Gregor, and bass-baritone Johan Reuter, a rock-solid Jaroslav Prus, the baron who realized a bit late that it is not always good to get what you want. All the other singers completed a uniformly excellent cast and significantly contributed in making this production a memorable experience.
This was an all the more remarkable feat as Janacek’s score is far from being overly friendly to either singing talents or audience members. And while its short phrases, abrupt cutaways, gripping dissonances and generally unsettled mood did wonder to express the elusive, multi-persona nature of Emilia Marty and the convoluted relationships she entertained with others, it was not always the most pleasing to the ears. It was, however, wonderfully adapted to the unique musicality of the Czech language and flawlessly complemented it.
Accordingly, Czech conductor Jiri Belohlavek kept singers and orchestra under tight control while making sure that the music’s vibrant colors and unconventional sounds shone through. This winning strategy paid off handsomely: The contrasting beauty of the last scene, when Emilia’s vulnerability is revealed and a peaceful end is nearing, was all the more transcendent in all its glowing lyricism, before the giant portrait of the diva, and my Met season, went up in a literally red-hot blaze of glory.
The 2011-2012 season is dead, vive the 2012-2013 season!