Humans have always had the desire to live forever. Even today there are those wealthy enough to have their bodies frozen in a cryogenic state and others who fervently believe that the wizards of Silicon Valley will preserve them digitally. Leoš Janáček’s opera, “The Makropulos Case” addresses the desire for eternal youth head on, and San Francisco Opera’s masterful production on opening night (October 14) was a timely reminder that it’s a good thing that our lives are finite.
Based on a play by Karel Čapek, “The Makropulos Case” revolves around the life of opera singer Emila Marty, who drank a special elixir when she was a child. The strange thing is that that happened during the time of the Hapsburg Emperor Rudolf and the concoction has allowed her to live for 300 years. At the outset of the opera, set in the 1920s, Marty is 337 years old, even though she doesn’t look a day over 30. However, she knows that her time is up and she will die unless she can get her hands on the document that contains the formula for the potion. The document was placed in a home of one of her former lovers and that estate is tied up in an interminable legal case. By the time that Marty receives the document, she realizes that her life doesn’t have any meaning and existing for another 300 years would only bring more boredom and loneliness.
Olivier Tambosi oversaw the staging of the San Francisco Opera production, which the company premiered in 2010 in a co-commision with Finnish National Opera. German soprano Nadja Michael gave a captivating performance as Marty, the ageless opera diva. She prowled on top of the lawyer’s desk and a bed mattress, daring men with her haughty beauty. Dazzling also was Michael’s opulent voice, which was mesmerizing throughout the evening.
The men who swirled about Marty were exceptional across the board. In the role of Albert Gregor, Charles Workman convincingly pled with her to love him but to no avail. Stephen Powel created a suave Baron Jaroslav Prus who nevertheless was transfixed by her. Dale Travis mixed skepticism and gravitas in his portrayal of Dr Kolenatý. Joel Sorensen’s soaring tenor fit the role of Vítek perfectly, and Brenton Ryan’s Janek conveyed a believable naiveté. In the role of Count Hauk-Šendorf, Matthew O’Neill colored his passion for Marty with a web of reverie.
Julie Adams created a convincingly naïve Kristina who was totally enthralled with the famous Marty. In lesser roles, Latvian mezzo Zanda Švēde and Brad Walker sang with distinction.
Except for the first act, which featured a huge bookcase stuffed with books and manuscripts, Frank Philipp Schlössman’s sets were minimalistic yet evocative. All of the sets included a large illuminated clock that reminded the audience of the passage of time in the story as well as the exact time of the performance (no need to look at a watch or cell phone). Schlössman’s costumes were traditional with the Michael standing out in the first act, pacing about in a white dress and short platinum blonde hair, which reminded me of Sharon Stone in “Basic Instinct.”
The orchestra, guided by conductor Mikhail Tatarnikov conquered Janáček’s tricky score although there were a couple of shaky entrances. The offstage brass ensemble elicited the time of Hapsburg Emperor Rudolf II. Overall, the music shifted wonderfully between lyricism and a propulsive dynamic thrust and is worth hearing again and again.