Janácek: The Makropulos Case

San Francisco Opera

War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, 1 December 2010 4.5 stars

SFO Cyrano The Makropulos Case, which premiered at the National Theatre Brno in 1926, was first seen in the US at the San Francisco Opera – forty years after Janacek composed it. This opera is back in California as the last piece of the winter season in an excellent co-production with the Finnish National Opera. The run was dedicated to the late Sir Charles Mackerras, who passed away in June 2010. The British conductor has been one of the greatest interpreters of Janacek's works, and he also led the Company's most recent production of this opera in 1993.

The star of this Makropulos Case is certainly Karita Mattila, debuting in a role that, I'm sure, will become a signature for her. But it was the cast as a whole that delivered a nigh-flawless performance; moreover, this production, designed by Frank Philipp Schlössmann, proved to be functional and imaginative. A huge clock dominates every scene, thematizing the passing of time which is crucial to the narrative. While this element is definitely imposing, it doesn't disturb the drama on stage. In fact, if the clock is gigantically sized, the whole staging functions on a large-scale. The spacial dimension is enhanced by the large proportions of the settings: the lawyer's office in the first act is a monumental library, which is replaced by the bare and austere backstage of a theatre in the second act, and by an equally desolate hotel room in the third. The prevailing colours of settings and costumes make the scene look as if it were in a black-and-white film, emphasising the darker undertones of the story itself: a woman who is damned not to know death and live throughout the centuries, losing any purpose for life itself.

From her first entrance on stage, Karita Mattila, portraying Emilia Marty, was a catalyst for dramatic energy. At first, I was struck by her over-acted movements, which she exploited all throughout the performance. In the dramatic context of this opera, her unnatural and almost schizophrenic gestures pointed at the hidden side of her character; Emilia Marty does not inhabit the same world as those around her, and she lives in different emotional and existential coordinates.

Vocally, Mattila was superb: her shining yet warm tone filled the house and was never overcome by the orchestra (something which has been somewhat of a problem in a few other occasions at the War Memorial Opera House). She delivered her lines effortlessly and with grace, showing both the most aggressive and the most vulnerable sides of her character.

SFO CyranoFor me, Mattila's performance was one of the most inspiring I've ever seen thus far on an opera stage. It was moving to compare the sweetness of smile during the standing ovation with the femme-fatale sides she showed on stage. She truly is an artist who can metamorphose and who can be convincing even when portraying the most difficult roles.

The performance of the rest of the cast was remarkable too: all the artists were precise both in the singing and in the acting. One highlight was Gerd Grochowski's Baron Prus. His baritone register was clean and powerful, and he managed to convey boldness as well as weakness, as his role required. Miro Dvorsky was a convincing Albert Gregor; both Thomas Glenn as Vitek and Dale Travis as Dr. Kolenatý delivered their lines persuasively

Susannah Biller as Kristina, the young star-struck opera singer, had a delightful bright timbre which was very apt for her part; the only feature that puzzled me was the somewhat overly childish acting, which was not totally justified by her role. Matthew O'Neill was a tremendously convincing Count Hauk-Šendorf, both humorous and touching at the same time in his stubborn pursuing of the woman whom he has known in his youth as the gypsy Eugenia Montez.

Jirí Belohlàvek, chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, made his long-awaited Company debut, and it was a truly successful one. The orchestra sounded in great shape – and this has been, admittedly, a constant feature of this winter season. In this Makropulos, all the sections worked harmoniously together under Belohlàvek's baton, and the sound they created was a mix of hysterical, nightmarish moments and fairytale-like nuances, ideal to portray the haunting story of Emilia Marty.

By Marina Romani

Photos credits: Cory Weaver

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