The metaphysical longings of “The Makropulos Case”

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Emilia Marty must be the only opera heroine to die of extreme old age. Many of them, especially coming out of the 19th century, suffer an early demise from consumption or madness. However, Marty, the robust and seductive centerpiece of Janáček’s opera, The Makropulos Case, was the daughter of an alchemist and the guinea pig for his elixir of youth. When she appears onstage in the opera’s first act she’s clocking in at 337 years. And she’s sporting a slim white sheath and impossible 3-inch high heels.

In the San Francisco Opera production, which opened this past Friday, the role is sung by the statuesque dramatic soprano Nadja Michael. Her dusky and resonant tones are set low in the vocal register when she begins Marty’s inquiry into a pending inheritance case between a Baron Prus and Albert Gregor. Marty’s interest and her physical restlessness, broken by interludes of collapse, are mysterious. Why has this renowned diva shown up in the lawyer’s office to ferret out the details of a legal battle that has been going on for a century?

During the course of the opera, we learn that Prus’ ancestor was Marty’s lover earlier in her life, when she was known as another opera singer, Ellian MacGregor. And that Albert Gregor is the descendent of their love child, Ferdinand MacGregor. Now Ellian is back, to resolve the inequities of her life … or perhaps not.

Marty, whose name originally was Elina Makropulos, has undergone a host of identity and name changes during her long lifetime, leaving behind a myriad of adoring lovers. She continues to draw the admiration and desire of the men surrounding her, but she realizes that the elixir of eternal youth is losing its potency, and soon she will die.

Janáček’s operatic adaptation of Karel Čapek’s play moves unflinchingly toward its revelation that immortality is not to be wished for. The prolonged youth of Elina/ Ellian/ Emilia/ Etc has transformed her into an amoral and unapproachable being. As her lovers have died she has remained intact and enduring, growing increasingly cold and distant. As she sings in her final emotionally charged and lyrical aria, grippingly interpreted by Michael: life has no meaning without death.

There is nothing romantic or sentimental about The Makropulos Case. It strikes, however, to the core of our longing for life and youth and our fear and regrets about death. And it is Janáček. The music gorgeously and complexly woven, with multiple motifs and an intricate and subtle sense of time. The singing was demanding, especially for Michael, who is onstage for most of the opera, unraveling a complicated backstory and an equally challenging philosophy. She was well supported by tenor Charles Workman in the role of the passionate and earnest Albert Gregor.

Tenor Brenton Ryan made his San Francisco Opera debut as the young Janek. And tenor Joel Sorensen opened the opera as the lawyer Vitek, his clear voice focusing the audience’s attention. Second-year Adler Fellow Julie Adams wonderfully sang the role of his daughter, the young opera singer who adores Emilia’s voice and presence. And mezzo-soprano Zanda Švēde admirably added to the female voices in the roles of the Chambermaid and a Cleaning Woman.

Tenor Matthew O’Neill sang the lusty Count Hauk-Šendorf, who remembers Emilia as the Spanish dancer Eugenia Montez. The lower male voices included bass-baritone Dale Travis as Dr. Kolenatý and Stephen Powell as Baron Jaroslav Prus. The orchestra was conducted by Mikhail Tatarnikov, musical director and principal conductor of the Mikhailovsky Theatre in St Petersburg.

Olivier Tambosi directed the production, which was a revival from 2010. The production design by Frank Philipp Schlössmann was sleek and elegant. Centered on a turning stage, the sets were dominated by a large clock in each scene. The clocks are set to the audience’s real time, so that we are always aware of our own moments slowly fleeing while being confronted by Emilia’s story of a life out of time.

Janáček’s splendid music made every moment well lived.

– Jaime Robles


San Francisco Opera’s production of The Makropulos Case continues through October 29. For information and tickets, visit sfopera.org.

Photo: Nadja Michael as Emilia Marty in San Francisco Opera’s production of Janáček’s “The Makropulos Case”. Photo by Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera.