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Janáček, The Makropulos Case: Soloists, Orchestra of San Francisco Opera, Jiří Bělohlávek (conductor), War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco. 10.11.2010 (HS)


Emilia Marty: Karita Mattila

Albert Gregor: Miro Dvorsky

Baron Jaroslav Prus: Gerd Grochowski

Dr. Kolenatý: Dale Travis

Vitek: Thomas Glenn

Kristina: Susannah Biller

Count Hauk-Šendorf: Matthew O’Neill

Janek: Brian Jagde

A Stagehand: Austin Kness

A Chambermaid, A Cleaning Woman: Maya Lahyani


Conductor: Jiří Bělohlávek

Director: Olivier Tambosi

Production Designer: Frank Philipp Schlössmann

Lighting Designer: Duane Schuler


Karita Mattila as Emilia Marty  - Picture © Cory Weaver

The set for Léos Janáček’s opera, The Makropulous Case, revolves on a turntable. During the overture it makes a complete rotation behind a scrim, and all we can make out clearly are three giant clocks, one in each scene. They pass before us, showing real time, the hands moving forward but the scene changing very little, a nice metaphor for the opera’s story of an opera diva who has been around under various names for 337 years.

This new production, to be shared with Finnish National Opera, made its debut Wednesday at San Francisco Opera. But the success of this 1922 work, based on a play by Karel Capek, goes well beyond the mostly black-and-white sets, with their sinuously curved walls and that omnipresent clock. From the roiling opening measures of the overture, with its sinister offstage fanfares, BBC Orchestra conductor Jiří Bělohlávek, making his first SFO appearance, drew stunningly dramatic and idiomatic playing from the company’s orchestra. A strong cast seldom missed a beat.

As Emilia Marty (the character’s current iteration), Karita Mattila sashayed onto the stage in Act I and simply took over. The first act, filled as it is with necessary but tedious exposition, needs a jolt. Mattila provided it with a stage presence that started out as compelling, and went up from there. From the beginning she exuded equal parts sexuality and jaded boredom, at various points lounging on a desk like a latter-day Marilyn Monroe, kicking stacks of paper out of her way, stretching to reveal a shapely leg, doing the splits and singing whole phrases while hanging off the edge of a bed—on a raked stage.

Mattila takes full license to go over the top with her acting, so unbuttoned that she makes it seem absolutely right. At one point in this performance, a few in the audience laughed at a particularly dramatic moment. Completely in character, she turned a stony face to the source of the sound. It stopped.

As impossible as it is to take your eyes off her when she is on stage, Mattila’s voice is what seals the deal. She can sound lustrous and creamy one moment, steely and sardonic the next. Intonation never seems to miss, even on phrases that start above the staff. Her rhythmic sense drives the music ever forward. I don’t speak Czech, but I understood the meaning in every phrase she sang without consulting the supertitles.

It all added up to a perfect portrayal of this character, who as a young woman named Eliana Makropulos in 16th-century Crete was given a potion that has allowed her to live for 300 years. Every 20 or 30 years, she must leave behind her current man to move to another country, always choosing aliases with the initials E.M. And always she becomes the leading diva of her day. But now, feeling as if she were fading, she needs the formula for the potion. It is among the effects in a probate case that has been going on for almost a century. She shows up in the lawyer’s office to find a way to the formula, even if means seducing or bullying several already mesmerized men to obtain the mysterious envelope containing it.

The Finnish soprano has long demonstrated a flair for the Czech composer’s most heated roles. Already celebrated for her portrayal of Janáček’s Jenůfa, she made a sensational role debut in 2002 at San Francisco Opera as Kát'a Kabanová. Now she can add Emilia Marty to her quiver. Once the character appears on stage she hardly ever leaves it. Mattila was indefatigable, up to and including the long final scene. Having acquired the formula, she must decide if she really wants to be around another 300 years. The scene is of Salome-like proportions. But while Salome (another role Mattila does unforgettably) must sing the similarly soaring lines and scandalous content after her “Dance of the Seven Veils,” Emilia Marty does it after being on stage for two-and-a-half acts. Mattila made it soar.

There are no weak spots in the rest of the cast. Miro Dvorsky wielded a clear, expressive tenor as Albert Gregor, the plaintiff in the case, smitten by Marty only to learn in the end that she is actually his great grandmother. Tall, thin Gerd Grochowski deployed an equally towering baritone as Baron Jaroslav Prus, the defendant, who actually has the envelope with the formula and succumbs to Marty’s wiles to give it up. Bass-baritone Dale Travis makes a suitably pompous lawyer Dr.
Kolenatý, tenor Thomas Glenn the bewildered clerk Vitek. Baritone Matthew O’Neill provided comic relief as Count Hauk-Šendorf, who despite his advanced age still is randy for Marty (and she for him). All sang splendidly.

Olivier Tambosi, who directed Mattila as Puccini’s
Manon Lescaut in her most recent appearance at San Francisco Opera in 2006, created a powerful, thoughtful and thought-provoking staging. And as it should be, the spotlight seldom strays from the soprano—literally. For the final scene Mattila is bathed in brilliant white light. Perfect.

Harvey Steiman

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