[Met Performance] CID:323070
The Makropulos Case {3} Matinee Broadcast ed. Metropolitan Opera House: 01/20/1996., Broadcast


Metropolitan Opera House
January 20, 1996 Matinee Broadcast
In English

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

Conductor...............David Robertson

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

Rebroadcast on Sirius Metropolitan Opera Radio

Review of Peter G. Davis in New York Magazine:

The Makropulos Curse

The verdict is in: After two superb productions of other Janácek operas; the Met fails to breathe life into the composer's eloquent mediation on immortality.

Opera is often all about death , but the audience at the [first]night performance of Leos Janácek's "The Makropulos Case" not long ago at the Metropolitan Opera was not prepared to be given such a tragic real-life reminder. Moments after the curtain rose, Richard Versalle, a 63-year-old character tenor perched high on a ladder, apparently suffered a fatal heart attack and toppled to the floor after singing: "Too bad, you can only live so long." Filing out of the house after the performance had been suspended, many dazed operagoers inevitably recalled the last time a singer died on the Met's stage: in 1960, when the great baritone Leonard Warren collapsed during Verdi's :La Forza del Destino" in mid-aria, one that begins, "Morir! Tremenda cosa!" - "To die! A momentous thing!" The Makropulos curse was still operating a few days later when the second scheduled performance also had to be canceled, this time thanks to the great blizzard of '96.

On the third try, the audience finally got to see the opera, a major twentieth-century work new to the Met, and by then its message must have struck most everyone as doubly ironic. No composer celebrated the forces of nature more joyously or embraced the realities of human life more passionately than Janácek, and "The Makropulos Case," based on the 1922 play by the Czech dramatist Karel Capek, must be his most naked statement on the subject. Imagine - an opera that not only rejects the enticing notion of an indefinitely extended life span, but also actually extols the practical necessity of dying punctually in the normal course of events.

After all, lots of mundane but vitally important matters that make life function smoothly - marriage, wages, contracts, insurance, pensions, probate, etc. - are predicated on the fact that most of us survive no longer than the biblical threescore and-ten, give or take. But Janácek, through the 337-year-old heroine of his opera, Emilia Marty, sees even more compelling reasons to let nature take its course. After assuming dozens of identities over more than three centuries, Emilia is bored to death because at some point during this protracted existence, her soul died. "Fools," she tells the assembled company before renouncing her chance to live another 300 years. "You are blissful for the trivial reason that you are going to die soon. You believe in humanity, in greatness, in love! But in me life has come to a halt and can go no further! What hideous solitude!" With that she rejects the secret formula that has prolonged her life, the document is consumed in flames, and Emilia enters into eternity singing her own secular requiem -one of the most thrillingly eloquent finales in all opera.

For most audiences, this grand lyrical climax is the chief glory of "The Makropulos Case," the most uncompromisingly severe and conversationally dense of Janáek's eight operas. But the composer never wastes a word or a note as he explores Emilia Marty and her long past, the tangled lawsuit that has brought her back to Prague, and the many people who stand between her and repossession of the formula for the life-giving potion that her father, the Greek physician Hieronymus Makropulos, concocted and administered to her in 1585. When he completed the opera in 1925, Janácek had perfected his singular style - an expressive song-speech that rides easily and naturally over an ingenious network of cellular instrumental motifs - and he brings to life a galaxy of sharply etched, pungent personalities. Emilia is the pitifully isolated figure at the center of this human comedy, an extraordinary operatic creation whose volatile moods unpredictably turn her from haughty prima donna to giddy little girl, motherly parent to impulsive lover, and finally into a tragic heroine. Needless to say, it's a role any soprano would kill for.

The Met's new English-language production was clearly designed as a vehicle to showcase Jessye Norman, but unfortunately the soprano and the role are incompatible. Although this Emilia Marty certainly looms large as a striking stage presence, she seems more like a generalized "objet d'opéra" than like a complex character brought to life by a compelling singing actress. Always the imperious prima donna, Norman gives a stiff and un-nuanced performance, never suggesting the warm breath of humanity that transforms Emilia from a self-centered egoist into a transcendent figure who, during her painful final moments, represents each one of us. Beyond that, Norman's voice has become increasingly unreliable as it ages and the registers separate, and her excursions into the upper octave are now risky adventures that seldom turn out well. She also has an annoying tendency to pitch notes imprecisely - a major flaw when singing this carefully notated score - and her inflated treatment of the composer's easy conversational idiom is both affected and self-consciously operatic.

If the production is ever revived with a different Emilia Marty, and one hopes that it will be, something will have to be done about one of Anthony Ward's bolder scenic effects: a huge, grainy close-cropped photograph of Norman glowering out at the audience. The other eye-catching visual element, an elaborate drop-frame curtain containing arcane writing and symbols (presumably the secret Makropulos formula itself, is apt enough, as are the angular, shallow Art Deco interiors. Elijah Moshinsky's staging at first struck me as a clumsy stop-and-go affair until I realized what the real problem was: the Met's new seat-back titles, in this case a lethally distracting element that needlessly duplicates the English text, irritatingly anticipates the singers' lines, and actively competes with the performance. Switch the things off on "Makropulos" nights.

Without an effective Emilia to set the tone, the men who spar with her on a variety of amorous and legal matters are bound to seem a bit dim. And so they do here, although all five - Graham Clark (Albert Gregor), Hĺkan Hagegĺrd (Jaroslav Prus), Donald McIntyre (Dr. Kolenarty), Anthony Laciura (Hauk Sendorf), and William Burden (Janek) - might possibly make a more vivid impression when playing opposite a more charismatic heroine. David Robertson encourages the orchestra to savor the snarl and bite of the score's spiky instrumental surfaces, but not its underlying lyrical passion.

Too bad. After it presented such superb performances of Janácek's "Jenufa" and "Kátä Kabanova" in recent years, it's sad to see the Met stumble with this truly ill-fated production of "The Makropulos Case."

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