Those of us who still miss the Rosenberg era of San Francisco Opera are getting a welcome reprieve from the "Stars! Glamour! MBA Night!" ethos of the Gockley era with one of the strongest productions the War Memorial Opera House has seen in years- a marvelous staging of Janacek's Věc Makropulos (The Makropulos Case) that has everything going for it. This co-production with Finnish National Opera, which closes out the fall season, has been the most highly anticipated event of SFO's season (the return of Placido Domingo excepted)- the kind of thing some of us have been waiting for for about four years and thank you David Gockley for delivering the goods so handsomely.
I've had the good fortune of seeing this opera before- with Penelope at the Aix-en-Provence festival in 2000. Sir Simon Rattle conducted and led a cast of featuring Anja Silja, Willard White and Graham Clark. Though the supertitles were in French and I can't understand that language (nor Czech, for that matter), thus rendering most of the plot points unintelligible beyond what I could pick up through the synopsis, it left a deep impression on me that stuck and a taste for Janacek that only grows stronger with each exposure to his work. Having now seen excellent productions of his major works, I think it time Leos Janacek is acknowledged to be the finest opera composer of the 20th Century, without peer. Jenufa, Katya Kabanova, The Cunning Little Vixen and The Makropulos Case are four masterpieces that can stand up against the best works of any other composer except for Wagner. There, I said it. It needed to be said. It's true.
Starring (and I do mean "Starring") the incomparable Karita Mattila in her first turn as Emilia Marty/Elina Makropulos/Elsa Muller/Ellian MacGregor/Eugenia Montez/Ektarina Myshkina, and featuring a super strong cast supported by fantastic conducting/musical contributions from Jiri Belohlavek in the pit and an excellent production team, this is what opera should be like all the time. Oh, were it only the case.
The plot sounds convoluted in most descriptions but it's actually not: Emilia Marty, an opera singer who is 337 years old, seeks a piece of paper containing the formula to maintain her eternal youth. She'll do anything (and anyone) to get hold of it because she realizes she's dying and needs a new fix. The rest of it- horribly convoluted family trees, legal wrangling, various seductions and spurned advances is just a bunch of white noise around her as she schemes to get what she wants.
Mattila is perfect in this. In fact, she owns this role so completely I can't imagine another singer of her caliber attempting it for years after this performance. If you've ever had the good fortune to experience Mattila in an interview conducted in person, you know this is a woman with a large personality and formidable charm. These assets, inherent to her, are utilized to their full extent on the stage. Mattila is a voracious, hungry animal in this- one whose longevity has stripped away her illusions, her willingness to play along, her patience for the petty desires and dreams of the mortal world and its self-imposed delusions and morality. With the same fearless physicality she brought to her Salome performances at the Met a few years back, she enters the stage and simply owns it before she even opens her mouth. Yet when she opens that mouth a certain magic happens. Allow me to wax hyperbolic for a moment and say that Mattila is in peak form here- she was born for this role.
When she sings of the scars inflicted upon her body after 300 years of men pawing at her and her willingness to expose those scars because she simply doesn't care and can't expect more from a man, the effect is chilling. The 50 year-old singer is a bombshell with a Zippo in one hand and Molotov cocktail in the other, but she wants to make you like it in a gentile manner as she gets ready to torch everything that stands in her way. At least as much as a woman who has "a thousand brats" can.
The supporting cast is strong, and since there really isn't a weak link among them I'm going to cite them in the order of impressiveness: Gerd Growchowski as Baron Prus; Matthew O'Neill as Sendorf; Brian Jadge as Janek; Maya Lahyani in two roles; Miro Dvorsky as Gregor; Susannah Biller as Kristina- all excellent.
The stage direction by Olivier Tambosi is flawless- he lets Mattila chew up the scenery (which she does and then some). The lighting by Duane Schuler is some of the best I've ever seen. In the first half Mattila is uber glamorous- evoking Kim Novak and other 50's cinematic icons. In the second, short half, as she brushes her hair while hearing of Janek's suicide with complete indifference she evokes Monroe at her most remote. Then with a stroke of genius, Schuler lights Mattila's face with a harsh white light- in effect creating a death mask for all to see as the denouement begins. Everything is stripped bare- the illusions, the dreams, the fallacy behind the idea that living forever could make one happy. As Marty explains how fortunate mortals are to have such easy lives, lives which have a purpose because they have an ending which gives them a meaning, the weightlessness of a life of no consequence is laid bare on the stage.
See it. This is what opera is all about. There are three more performances.
All photos by Cory Weaver.