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ACT I. In Dr. Kolenatý's law office, Vítek, a clerk, notes that the case of Gregor versus Prus, recently revived, dates back almost a century. Albert Gregor, an interested party, asks how it is going; Kolenatý has taken it to the supreme court but has not yet returned. Vítek's daughter, Kristina, a young singer, runs in, raving about Emilia Marty, a soprano with whom she has been rehearsing at the opera. To her surprise, Marty appears, shown in by Kolenatý. The diva inquires about the Gregor case. It began, Kolenatý explains, when Baron Ferdinand Josef Prus died without a will, whereupon Ferdinand Gregor laid claim to his estate, saying Prus had promised it to him; Prus's cousin contested his claim. Marty says Ferdinand was the baron's illegitimate son by an opera singer, Ellian MacGregor. When Kolenatý says the current Gregor is about to lose the case, Marty asks what he would need to win. A will, says Kolenatý. Marty describes a cupboard in the Prus house where the will was kept. Kolenatý thinks she is making it up, but Gregor insists that Kolenatý investigate. After the lawyer leaves, Gregor, fascinated with Marty, tells her he would shoot himself if he lost the case. Though she brushes aside his infatuation, she tries to enlist his help in getting documents she is sure will be found with the will. Kolenatý returns with Gregor's adversary, Jaroslav Prus. The will was found where Marty said it would be; Prus congratulates Gregor on the victory that will be his — if evidence can be found that the illegitimate Ferdinand was indisputably Ferdinand Gregor. Marty says she will provide proof.
ACT II. On the opera-house stage, a Stagehand and Cleaning Woman discuss Marty's performance. Prus arrives, followed by his son, Janek, and Kristina. The diva enters, contemptuous of everyone — first of the tongue-tied Janek, who falls under her spell, then of Gregor, who arrives with flowers that she reminds him he cannot afford. Her mood softens when a feebleminded old man, Hauk-Šendorf, wanders in, babbling about Eugenia, a Gypsy he loved fifty years ago. Assuring him that Eugenia is not dead, Marty asks him in Spanish for a kiss. When the others leave, Prus questions Marty about Ellian MacGregor, whose love letters he has read; he suspects she was the "Elina Makropulos" (same initials) listed as the mother on Ferdinand's birth certificate. Since illegitimate children bore the mother's name, a descendant of "Ferdinand Makropulos" would have to be found; otherwise the estate would remain in Prus's hands. Marty offers to pay for an unopened envelope found with the other papers, but Prus refuses and leaves. Gregor reenters and tells the exhausted Marty he loves her; her response is to doze off. He leaves. She awakens to find Janek there and asks him to get her the envelope. Prus, overhearing, sends Janek away, then agrees to give Marty the envelope if she will spend the night with him.
ACT III. The next morning, in Marty's room, Prus gives her the envelope but feels cheated by her coldness as a lover. A maid announces that a servant of Prus's is looking for him. Prus returns with the news that Janek has killed himself over his infatuation with Marty. They are interrupted by Hauk-Šendorf, who thinks he and Marty are about to leave for Spain. She humors him, wanting to leave, but Gregor appears with Kolenatý, Kristina and a doctor, who leads Hauk-Šendorf away. Kolenatý has noticed the similarity between Marty's autograph and MacGregor's signature; he suspects Marty of forgery. Since she is uncooperative, the others search her papers. When she pulls a revolver, Gregor takes it from her. Marty offers to talk to them after she gets dressed. While she does so, they continue their search, finding evidence of various pseudonyms, all with the initials "E.M." Marty returns with a bottle and a glass and confesses that she was born Elina Makropulos in Crete over 300 years ago. Her father, court physician to Rudolf II, was ordered to develop an elixir of eternal life. The alchemist was forced to try it on his sixteen-year-old daughter; when she fell into a coma, he was imprisoned as a fraud, but the girl recovered and escaped. Some years later, she gave the formula to her lover Baron Prus; she also bore him a son, which makes her Albert Gregor's grandmother several times over. Since the formula lasts only 300 years, she must recover it to survive. But life has lost its meaning, and she feels ready to die. At first no one believes her story, but gradually they realize it must be true. Life should not last too long, she says — it loses its value. The dying Marty offers the formula to anyone who wants it, but no one will touch it except Kristina, who sets fire to it.
Marty on the stage of the opera house, below (Malfitano, Anthony Laciura as Count Hauk-Šendorf, Tom Fox as
Prus, Ronald Naldi as Vitek, Matthew Polenzani as Janek, Jennifer Welch-Babidge as Kristina)
© Beatriz Schiller 2012
Leoš Janáček (1854–1928) has been described as a romantic born too late or a modernist born too early. He spent much of his life in relative obscurity as an organist and pedagogue in his native city of Brno. He wrote most of his operas late in life and was universally acclaimed for them only after World War II. Today, his laconic musical language and idiosyncratic, spare orchestration are in tune with the times.
In December 1922, Janáček saw Karel Čapek's Več Makropulos and decided to turn it into an opera. He fashioned his own libretto, paring away chunks of dialogue while retaining the play's three-act structure. Working quickly, he completed the score in November 1925 but spent another year refining it to his satisfaction. Though the play is a philosophical comedy, Janáček focused on the emotional state of the heroine. Fascinated by her eternal womanhood and erotic mood swings, he created a twentieth-century counterpart to Wagner's Kundry.
The first performance of The Makropulos Case took place at Brno on December 18, 1926, followed by the Prague premiere on March 1, 1928, the last Janáček attended before his death on August 12 of that year. The British premiere of Makropulos was a 1964 English-language production at Sadler's Wells in London, directed by John Blatchley, with Charles Mackerras pacing Australian soprano Marie Collier as Emilia. Two years later, Collier starred in the U. S. premiere of Makropulos, also sung in English, at San Francisco Opera. Makropulos entered the repertory of New York City Opera in 1970, in an English-language production staged by Frank Corsaro, with Maralin Niska as Emilia Marty.
Jessye Norman was the Met's first Emilia Marty, in an English-language production directed by Elijah Moshinsky in 1996. The Moshinsky staging's first scheduled Makropulos, on January 5, was canceled a few minutes after the beginning of the performance, after the onstage death of its Vitek, tenor Richard Versalle. The Met's next scheduled performance of the opera, on January 8, was canceled because of an unusually heavy snowstorm. The Met premiere of Makropulos was on January 11, 1996, with David Robertson conducting. Subsequent revivals of Makropulos at the Met, in 1998 and 2001, have been sung in Czech, as is the present season's revival.
WHAT TO READ AND HEAR
Karita Mattila as Emilia Marty at San Francisco Opera
© Cory Weaver 2012
Janáček and his World (Princeton) is a superb compendium of essays about the composer by Leon Botstein, Diane Paige and other Janáček scholars, including John Tyrrell, whose contribution is titled "How Janáček Composed Operas." Tyrell's own splendid Janáček Operas (Princeton), though informative, is difficult to find. Mirka Zemanova's Janáček: A Composer's Life (Northeastern) is a good introductory biography. Toward the Radical Center (Catbird Press) a Karel Čapek reader, contains a translation by Yveta Synek Graff and Robert T. Jones of the original play on which the Janáček opera is based.
Charles Mackerras leads two superb CD performances of Makropulos, which was one of his signature operas. The first, recorded in 1978 for Decca, features the incandescent Elisabeth Söderström as Emilia Marty and the immaculately polished playing of the Vienna Philharmonic. The second, released in 2007, is sung in English, with Cheryl Barker as its ferocious Emilia and the English National Opera Orchestra in winning form (Chandos).
The DVD of choice is Nikolaus Lehnhoff's 1995 Glyndebourne production (Kultur), with Andrew Davis pacing the gorgeously macabre Emilia of Anja Silja.