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Monday, November 15, 2010

Saturday Night: Leos Janácek's The Makropulos Case at War Memorial Opera House

Posted By on Mon, Nov 15, 2010 at 7:38 AM

Emilia Marty's hotel room - CORY WEAVER
  • Cory Weaver
  • Emilia Marty's hotel room
Leoš Janáček's The Makropulos Case
November 13, 2010
@ War Memorial Opera House

Better than:
Eternal life

Scrambled eggs. Scrambled eggs, and a long-forgotten envelope with her alchemist father's formula for immortality. When these are the leading lady's principal objects of desire, notwithstanding a bevy of entranced men, it's a safe bet that the opera you're viewing is a bit of an outlier. If this outlying work is one of S.F. Opera's current performances of Leoš Janáček's The Makropulos Case, you're also watching the company's best production of the fall season.

Placed among a trio of beloved works with romantic sincerity at their center (Aida, Madama Butterfly, Le Nozze di Figaro) and two lesser-known operas that largely seem cut from that same cloth (Werther, Cyrano de Bergerac), Makropulos can't help but stand out on thematic grounds alone. Janáček's score, with its refusal of accessible melody, won't send anyone home humming a memorable march or aria. To borrow from the occupations of the title characters in Werther and Cyrano, if the rest of this season's operas are love poems, Makropulos is The Waste Land -- informed by archaic sources yet thoroughly modern; suffused with dissonance and ennui; and epitomized by an immortal woman who finally just wants to die, already.

Karita Mattila (Emilia Marty) - CORY WEAVER
  • Cory Weaver
  • Karita Mattila (Emilia Marty)

But if her character is supremely world-weary (337 years of life will do that to a woman), Finnish soprano Karita Mattila gave a performance that was alive with intelligence, dramatic awareness, and the virtuosic vocals for which she's renowned. It's hard to believe that this is her role debut; she so naturally rendered the self-possession and peculiar carnal appeal of Emilia Marty (alias Ellian MacGregor, Eugenia Montez, and Ekaterina Myshkin; née Elina Makropulos) that you'd think she'd been singing the part for at least one lifetime. Considering the role's inherent challenges -- she is onstage and drives the action for nearly all of the opera, yet has to keep enough in reserve to execute the tremendous finale -- it'd be stingy indeed to claim that the standing ovation she received was just a function of her reputation.


Gerd Grochowski (Jaroslav Prus) - CORY WEAVER
  • Cory Weaver
  • Gerd Grochowski (Jaroslav Prus)
So commanding was Mattila's performance that it's unjustly easy to overlook the achievements of her fellow cast members. Bass-baritone Gerd Grochowski triumphed in his S.F. Opera debut as Jaroslav Prus, and tenor Matthew O'Neill had a small but entertaining turn as a romantic relic from Marty's extensive past. Tenor Miro Dvorsky as Albert Gregor and bass-baritone Dale Travis as Dr. Kolenaty ably rounded out the major male roles, and in minor parts, Adler Fellows Maya Lahyani and Austin Kness built on the excellence they've displayed throughout this season. Under the masterful direction of Jiří Bělohlávek, the orchestra handled the complex, challenging score with conviction and nuance.

Matthew O'Neill (Count Hauk-Šendorf) - CORY WEAVER
  • Cory Weaver
  • Matthew O'Neill (Count Hauk-Šendorf)
This new production, a joint effort with the Finnish National Opera, deserves longevity that rivals Marty's. Frank Philipp Schlössmann's circular, predominantly black-and-white sets evoke ideas of time and place that are at once specific (the real-time clock in the first and last act; the drab modernity of Eastern Europe in the early 20th century) and open-ended (in the last act, the set's nautilus-like curve away behind Marty's hotel bed, leading to infinity or to nowhere). That there's not much of a difference between those destinations is, of course, this unsettling work's point.

The stage of a theater - CORY WEAVER
  • Cory Weaver
  • The stage of a theater
Critic's Notebook

Personal bias:
All of Emilia Marty's aliases employ the initials "E.M." I'm "Em" to certain close associates. Freaky.

Random detail: A 1996 performance at the Met had to be aborted when 63-year-old tenor Richard Versalle, in the role of Dr. Kolenaty's clerk Vitek, had a heart attack and fell off an onstage ladder to his death. His last, scripted words? "Too bad you can only live so long."

By the way: Remaining performances are Nov. 16, 20, 24, and 28 at War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness (at Grove), S.F. Tickets are $20-$360; call 864-3330 or visit www.sfopera.com. Performances run approximately 2 hours and 20 minutes. Sung in Czech, with English supertitles.

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Emily Hilligoss

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