Met’s Makropulos Case lives on

Elina Makropulos is a woman as old as opera.

Janáček, The Makropulos Case (Věc Makropulos). Metropolitan Opera, 4/27/2012. Production by Elijah Moshinsky, conducted by Jiri Belohlávek with Karita Mattila (Emilia Marty), Emalie Savoy (Kristina), Richard Leech (Gregor), Johan Reuter (Prus), Tom Fox (Kolenaty), Alan Oke (Vitek), Matthew Plenk (Janek), Bernard Fitch (Count Hauk-Sendorf).

Note: Spoilers, as they say, ahead. If you don’t know anything about this opera and are thinking of going to see it–as I encourage you to do!–be aware that it is one of the only operas that actually works well as a suspense thriller. So you might not want to read the rest of this until later. And not think about that first line too much. (Of the two friends I saw this with, one knew the big plot twist and one didn’t. The one who didn’t loved the mystery aspects. The one who did know also enjoyed it, though.)

Elina Makropulos is a woman as old as opera. A little older, in fact: she was born in 1585. And she is, of course, an opera singer. By 1922, when the opera is set, she’s tired. But as tempting as it is to read The Makropulos Case as an allegory for music history–Opera, as we all know, is a woman, and one of dubious virtue at that, and as for the date when she died, 1922 is not a bad candidate (just ask Slavoj Zizek)–taken to its literal end it doesn’t get you very far. The best evidence against it is The Makropulos Case itself, an utterly unique work that seems to expand the idea of what an opera can be.

Opera, and Elina Makropulos, know how to have a good time, but the weight of the cumulative past eventually becomes overwhelming. When she finally lets go and dies, we can get on with it and have The Makropulos Case, something new. It’s a kind of gothic legal thriller, a mystery populated by ordinary people trying to deal with one extraordinary one, set to a flickering, dark score that erupts in moments of lyric beauty. And it’s a wonderfully urbane and creepy piece, twisty and explicit in ways you would not expect, but without the intense neurosis of, say, Elektra. All from a composer most famous for his sympathy for Moravian peasants.

The Met’s Elijah Moshinsky production is avowedly set in the twentieth century–I suppose in the 1920’s, though it looks a little bit more recent. It’s a staging of broad strokes, from a giant portrait of E.M. staring at us to a tall wall of windows and another of file cabinets to a painfully obvious and yet somehow still fabulous giant sphinx in Act 2. (Could this mean the E.M. is mysterious, and old? Nah, it probably means she just finished singing Aida.) It’s a good-looking production, and the revival direction is detailed and sensitive. While rarely inspired and rather unfocused, it works.

The biggest disappointment of the evening was the sloppy and pale playing by the orchestra. Jiri Belohlávek’s tempos were fine and everything held together in the big picture, but textures were muddy and the entire evening seemed low in energy. Considering that this performance was on the night between Rheingold and Walküre, it may have suffered limited rehearsal and/or many subs in the pit. It’s too bad, because the orchestral writing of this opera is fantastic.

But the reason to put on The Makropulos Case is because you have a diva. And Karita Mattila fits the bill. Her recent outings at the Met have found her badly miscast; she doesn’t have the tonal breadth or earnest sincerity for Manon Lescaut or Tosca. And her most recent Salomes, while terrifically acted, showed a fraying voice. But she has always been great in Janáček, and Makropulos finds her in her element both vocally and theatrically.

She sounds great, and sings Janáček’s tricky rhythms with a spontaneity that suggests they are just being written. Her Emilia Marty/etc. is a woman who has had the time to figure out what she wants and what she needs to do get it–until she discovers, to her surprise, that she doesn’t want it anymore. She doesn’t so much approach the line of camp as much as not acknowledge its existence, striking languorous poses and draping herself over various pieces of furniture, singing all the while. In the hands of a lesser performer she would be Lilli von Schtupp, but Mattila has the charisma to get away with a lot. It is unquestionably her show.

The supporting cast was fine but overshadowed. As Gregor, Richard Leech sang unrelentingly loudly with a throaty sort of tone. Johan Reuter acted well as Prus, and mostly sounded good too, though it is not a large voice and I am slightly concerned as I am seeing him as Wotan this summer. Emalie Savoy made an excellent Met debut as Kristina. Bernard Fitch was a little more voiceless than one would expect old Hauk to be voiceless.

This is one of the performances of the season. Go see it.

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  1. Saw it and I was damned glad I did. Everything cohered beautifully and the orchestra was minus the splats you heard opening night. I love your description of MC as a gothic legal thriller. Since this was my first time seeing it, so many aspects of the opera bowled me over: the overt sex and sexism, Elina's independence and her refusal to be attached to anyone or anything. And then there's that intensely rich complex score. I've been in the chorus for Glagolithic Mass and Janacek drives you crazy with the rhythmic and sonic demands. Everyone rose to the occasion. Leech toned it down and for me, it was a redemption of a sort: I'd heard him a couple of years back in Cincinnati and he was awful. I hope he continues to work with a coach so he can recover some of the frayed luster and lyricism.
    No walkouts from where we were sitting (Family Circle) and tremendous ovations.

  2. A little late to comment on this post but Ive just come across your wonderful blog and ive also seen this so I am just wondering what you think of mattila and her voice? I know that she is past her best but she is amazing? Hope u agree