[Met Performance] CID:322990
Metropolitan Opera Premiere
The Makropulos Case {1} Metropolitan Opera House: 01/11/1996.
 (Metropolitan Opera Premiere)
(Debuts: William Burden, David Robertson, Anthony Ward, Dona Granata, Howard Harrison
Review)


Metropolitan Opera House
January 11, 1996

Metropolitan Opera Premiere
In English

THE MAKROPULOS CASE {1}
Leos Janácek--Leos Janácek

Emilia Marty............Jessye Norman
Kristina................Marie Plette
Albert Gregor...........Graham Clark
Vítek...................Ronald Naldi
Janek...................William Burden [Debut]
Count Hauk-Sendorf......Anthony Laciura
Jaroslav Prus...........Håkan Hagegård
Dr. Kolenaty............Donald McIntyre
Cleaning woman..........Stephanie Blythe
Stagehand...............Ara Berberian
Chambermaid.............Michelle DeYoung

Conductor...............David Robertson [Debut]

Production..............Elijah Moshinsky
Set designer............Anthony Ward [Debut]
Costume designer........Dona Granata [Debut]
Lighting designer.......Howard Harrison [Debut]

Translation: Elijah Moshinsky and David Robertson with Jessye Norman

The Makropulos Case received six performances this season.

Production a gift of The Edgar Foster Daniels Foundation

[Note: This performance was dedicated to the memory of Richard Versalle, who died onstage January 5 while appearing as Vítek. That performance was cancelled. What would have been the second performance of The Makropulos Case, on January 8, was cancelled because of a blizzard.]

[Alternate title: Vec Makropulos or The Makropulos Affair.]

Review of Andrew Clark in the February 4 issue of Financial Times (U.K.)

American Divas Take to Janácek

If anyone had claimed 10 years ago that "The Makropoulos Case" could simultaneously fill the two biggest US opera theatres, they would have been told to get their head examined. But lo and behold, Janácek's musical mystery story has just finished a sell-out run at the Lyric Opera in Chicago, and has wowed subscribers at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Those who predicted commercial disaster have had to eat humble pie. "Makropoulos" was suddenly a hit.

In each production, an American diva was tackling the pivotal role of Emilia Marty for the first time - the supremely versatile Catherine Malfitano in Chicago, the regal Jessye Norman at the Met. Like several other distinguished sopranos not previously associated with Janácek, Malfitano and Norman saw in "Makropoulos" one of the great challenges of the operatic stage: to impersonate a 337-year old, to breathe warmth into human coldness, to offer a performance on which the whole production stands or falls.

But if strong casting and marketing were all that was necessary to widen the repertoire in the US, Janácek would already be a popular composer. The fact that his brand of compressed story-telling, elliptical expressiveness and musical humanism has finally struck a chord indicates the growing sophistication of the American opera public. US audiences have discovered what their counterparts in the UK and Germany found a generation ago: Janácek's appeal is universal.

Although both productions were flawed, each offered an original interpretation of the central role - an opera singer who is both beneficiary and victim of her father's life-prolonging potion. Malfitano, singing in Czech, played Marty as a Lulu-like femme fatale, tough, sexy and manipulative. She developed the character convincingly, establishing herself as an object of male obsession before ending up as a superannuated bitch. She may have missed the tyrannical side of Marty, but she always engaged our sympathy.

In New York, it was a case of The Jessye Norman Show. Here was the diva playing herself - difficult, demanding, barely mobile, but bristling with comic instinct and self-parody. Where Malfitano had survived on a typically adroit piece of vocal legerdemain, Norman's majestic singing enveloped the theatre. This was not the terse, rhapsodic Janá?ek we are used to, an impression heightened by the colloquial English translation (in which Norman had a hand). But she is far better championing "Makropoulos" than trying to act Sieglinde.

These contrasts were echoed in the musical and visual surroundings. If Bruno Bartoletti's poetic conducting in Chicago brought out Puccinian associations in the score, the New York production sounded like a hybrid of Barber and Martinu, thanks to the Met orchestra's technicolour sonority and David Robertson's penchant for pounding rhythm. Neither was idiomatic - Janácek's melodies demand less sentiment and more rhythmic subtlety - but both performances had been well rehearsed.

The chief merit of David Alden's Chicago staging was the way it cut through the opera's garrulousness. Marty's exchanges with Gregor (Kim Begley in magnificent form) developed into a rousing anti-love duet, while her Act 2 reunion with Ragnar Ulfung's randy old Hauk was the very picture of romantic nostalgia. Best of all was the [start of] of Act 3, where Malfitano's sexual charisma and Tom Fox's hunk-like Prus generated a potent post-coital smell.

Much of this good work was dissipated by the production's clichéd imagery. Charles Edwards's steeply-raked, semi-abstract set was fronted by a clock-face, the hands of which were removed at curtain-up by a silent teenager - the innocent young Elina Makropoulos. A bank of cinema seats populated by identical male admirers was the unlikely backstage setting for Act 2, and the heroine made a Tosca-like death-leap from a stone parapet. Brigitte Reiffenenstuel's 1930s costumes were equally crass: Marty was introduced in trilby, trouser suit and dark glasses, more Al Capone than La Stupenda.

New York encountered the opposite problem: a production with bags of visual style, but sterile from within. Anthony Ward's 1940s decor, dominated by a blow-up of Norman's face and a frame of legal hieroglyphics, established a mood of "film noir." A towering vault of filing cabinets in Act I gave way to a sphinx-like throne, from which Norman held court like an African potentate. She finally expired in a parody of Wagnerian immolation. Dona Granata's opulent costumes included a suit of cobwebs for Hauk, a vivid metaphor for a character frozen in the web of time.

But the story itself unfolded in a dramatic vacuum. What exactly did Elijah Moshinsky - tackling his second Met production this season - do with all that rehearsal time? Perhaps he was intimidated by Norman. Perhaps she vetoed his ideas. Perhaps he had no ideas. That was how it looked. Experienced singer-actors like Graham Clark and Hakan Hagegard neither of whom sounded comfortable - were frozen on the sidelines.



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