In a style that could almost be described as film noir, The Makropulos Case is a rare entry in the opera thriller genre.
In a brisk prologue, men in hats and coats stand and stare at a giant billboard that is slowly revealed to carry an image of an exotically beautiful woman. A giant showcloth of crazed scrawlings drops in and, when the action resumes, we are in a stark law office with a towering window that looks out on the billboard.
Speaking of brisk, having been watching the Ring Cycle, it must be noted that this opera fairly flew by in comparison.
Success of this rarely performed work rests squarely on the shoulders of its leading lady and, fortunately, the Met is extremely well served by the luminous Karita Mattila. The lustrous, golden beauty of Mattila’s soprano is matched by her gorgeous statuesque physical presence. Like a pristine mature-age Marilyn Monroe, Mattila lights up the stage and thoroughly captivates the audience, her acting talent as extraordinarily strong as her singing.
Written well before the time of modern film scores, Janáček’s musical style presents the music as the type of accompaniment to the dramatic action, as heard for decades now in movies. The story progresses at a clipping pace, with the only casualty of this style being a distinct lack of arias. One longs to hear more than brief phrases, particularly from the marvelous Mattila. That chance finally comes at end, though still not in the form of a traditional melodic aria. Nonetheless, the music as a whole is entirely accessible and enjoyable on first hearing.
A very strong performance partner for Mattila in act one is powerful tenor Richard Leech as Albert McGregor. The famous opera singer Emilia Marty (Mattila) knows much of “Bertie” and his father’s will, despite the many years that have rolled by.
At first glance, act two appears to be set in a red floral garden, but one quickly realises that the turquoise cloud-strewn sky is a backdrop and the field of flowers are roses thrown on stage by Emilia’s ardent admirers. An increasingly rattled Emilia enters, wearing piercing emerald green, her strident behaviour that of a sexy siren. The action continuing on the opera house stage, we are soon under the gaze of another imposing female figure when the cloud cloth is struck, revealing a giant statue of the Sphinx. A huge red cloth flies in as past lover Count Hauk-Šendorf, a spry Bernard Fitch, recalls Eugenia Montez.
McGregor returns, having discovered a connection in the will to Elina Makropulos, rather than Elian MacGregor, and the evidence is clear of a woman who has lived across the ages with each new name having the initials E. M..
Tension and mystery build in act three until Emilia reveals all in a dazzling scene that finally gives Mattila an extended sequence of bravura singing. In the end there are probably too many male characters for them all to be presented clearly. The suicide of one young man has no emotional impact, except, as with all other elements related to the men, to colour and deepen Emilia’s fascinating character. Mattila’s tour de force performance in the finale is quite unforgettable.
The secret of her centuries on earth exposed, her long life becomes a cautionary tale as the magic formula is burnt. The omnipresent billboard goes up in flames to leave us with a final dramatic image at the end of Emilia’s tortured existence.
Photos: #1 Cory Weaver, #5 Ken Howard, all others: Simon Parris