337-year-old prima donna rules!
by Philip Campbell
The San Francisco Opera revived director Olivier Tambosi's perfect production of composer Leos Janacek's strange and compelling Vec Makropulos (The Makropulos Case ) last week after an absence of only six years, marking the 50th anniversary of the opera's US premiere by the same Company in 1966. It might be more accurate to say "returned to life," as there are really no changes necessary in the fine-looking production.
The gray scale designs by Frank Philipp Schlossman, with sensitive lighting by Duane Schuler, remain intact, and the turntable set runs appropriately like clockwork. Tambosi's intelligent blocking simply couldn't be clearer. Only the cast and conductor have changed, but that is where the vitality of Janacek's invention is rightfully made most apparent.
The saga of a 337-year-old prima donna seducing her way through eternity is told with Janacek's typical economy of expression. The intricate plot unfolds rapidly, even if his adaptation of Karel Capek's play is mostly conversational for the first two acts.
The male moths (and one star-struck girl) flitting about the fascinating flame of Emilia Marty, as she is now known after centuries of deception, spend most of the time either talking to her or about her. Sleek and bathed in a mesmerizing light of platinum hair and creamy white couture, E.M., nee Elina Makropulos, laughs and lunges playfully, always at the center of attention. Her coldly calculating sexuality and lightning-bolt verbal strikes may seem cruel, but her worn humanity surfaces with transcendent grace during the shocking and lyrical final act.
There are surprising moments of humor, subtly underscored in the surging rhythmic flow of the orchestral writing, and dramatic points are made with stabbing theatrical emphasis.
The muted trumpets of the Prelude, redolent of the court of the Habsburg Emperor Rudolf II, who first set the quest for the elixir of youth in motion, are threaded throughout the score. Janacek also employs eerie string harmonics, accompanied by what almost sounds like a child's toy drum, to make us aware of the world-weary diva's long journey to ultimate release.
Russian conductor Mikhail Tatarnikov makes his Company debut with an interpretation that shows orchestral control with an intense understanding.
The composer's innate humanity is expressed profoundly in the heroine's harrowing but triumphantly knowing last words. Janacek was a brilliant man of the theatre, but he was also quite the philosopher.
When E.M. first made her appearance at the War Memorial Opera House in the Tambosi production, Finnish soprano Karita Mattila tore the roof off the old house with a performance that really couldn't be topped. Matched, maybe, as German soprano Nadja Michael has so brilliantly proved. Her sensational Salome marked her 2009 American and SFO debut, and like La Mattila, she indelibly etched herself in memory.
Striking looks, passionate temperaments and powerful voices typify both singers, but Michael brings a slightly softer edge to begin with, and she betrays her character's tragic cynicism only late in her portrayal. It is a smart approach, and she earns the audience's sympathy just in time for the stunning final blackout. Could Michael's enactment be bettered? Probably not. Like Mattila's, it could possibly only be equaled.
The surrounding cast is good here, too, but no one can (or should) take our attention too far away. Matthew O'Neill's buffoonish Count (an early lover of E.M. in yet another guise) is a reprise from the previous production, but he still looks too young, even with makeup, and his antics deny the character much sympathy. He earns his laughs with some spry but rather unlikely physical comedy.
Tenor Charles Workman as the distant great-great-great-grandson makes his SFO debut with an expressive performance that seems much more age-appropriate. His ranging moods of ardor and dismay are caught with his believable acting and nuanced sound.
Baritone Stephen Powell's gruff and rather nasty Baron Jaroslav Prus gets what he wants from E.M. sexually before he gives her what she needs to live on. His dark-sounding voice is well-suited to the role. His consternation at the finale seems genuine.
As the young singer with a girl-crush on Emilia, soprano Julie Adams, a second-year Adler Fellow, is a suitably over-amped teenager.
Tenor Brenton Ryan (SFO debut) is also convincing as her boyfriend. His bright tone conveys Janek's frustration amusingly well.
Bass-baritone Dale Travis returns to sing the part of Dr. Kolenaty, and Joel Sorenson essays the role of Vitek, his clerk. As with the other members of the ensemble, they make their views of the pivotal central character believable.
Further moments of lighter observation are offered by mezzo-soprano Zanda Svede as a cleaning woman and a chambermaid, and first-year Adler Fellow American bass-baritone Brad Walker as a stagehand. They all provide the necessary support for Nadja Michael's breathtaking performance. Tambosi's take on the intriguing Makropulos affair is welcome to return anytime another soprano dares take the gauntlet most recently thrown down by her.
Continues in repertory through Oct. 29.