Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Janáček's The Makropulos Case lucidly told and brilliantly sung at San Francisco Opera

From director Olivier Tambosi, San Francisco Opera's revival production of Leoš Janáček's penultimate opera, The Makropulos Case, creates a clever juxtaposition of lucidly unfolding drama set in a sunless and mainly monotone world. Appreciatively sung in Czech with English supertitles, in it, a stream of convincing characters brilliantly take their position in one of opera's outer-orbital stories.

Imagine given the opportunity to live through centuries of change in secret without growing old. It might be a highly desirable proposition. But in 1585 Elina Makropulos had no such choice when her alchemist father, Hieronymus Makropulos, was ordered to test a potion on her at the request of Emperor Rudolph II in order to extend his life.

Charles Workman , Nadja Michael and Dale Travis
More than 300 years later, after copious identities and forever an escapee, her contemporary incarnation, Emilia Marty, is facing the final curtain unless she can find the formula to extend her life another 300 years. As luck would have it, she hears of the generations-spanning case of Gregor vs. Prus over rights to a disputed estate she was once a part of that she insists a will exists for and a sealed envelope she is desperate to retrieve.

It sounds like the beginnings of a dark fairytale but what we get from Janáček is an exciting, potent and mature psycho-drama that nudges realism. Premiered in 1926, the story's eccentricity is masterfully played out in Janáček's highly expressive and musically conversant score and natural flowing libretto that clearly reflects the writing of Karel Čapek's play written a few years earlier. Tambosi commendably mines it for gesturally large effects together with the exact amount of lighter moments of relief that are inextricably bonded to the score.

A sturdy and colourful overture guides us through landscapes that could easily depict shifting historical moods to take the observer to the opening scene. In his San Francisco Opera debut, conductor Mikhail Tatarnikov gave the work multi-faceted life and extracted interest and clarity from all sections of the pit. Tatarnikov provided generous space for his singers and the draft for emotion that resulted in an inseparable and symbiotic relationship throughout.

Nadja Michael as Emilia Marty
But the work's success hinges on the performance of the woman at the centre of this affair who is rarely off stage. Slim, streamlined and seductive as she slinks about her domain, German soprano Nadja Michael is a scorching dynamo as the minx-like and spiked-blonde-haired Emilia Marty or E.M., the initials she uses for every one of her previous identities. Michael takes little time to establish her authority over men and her command of the stage. At her youthful 337 years of age, Emilia has mastered a few techniques, including operatic star quality as a singer, so mounting the attorney's desk or hurling insults is all part of the power she exerts.

But life has become numb for Emilia and the cold and uncaring self-interested woman eventually boils over with pitiable emotive force as she realises she has lost life's meaning. Michael encapsulates the steely coldness and later impassioned Emilia with remarkable force in a performance that makes its case against immortality. Michael showed not only unfaltering staying power, but her dark volcanic soprano intensified right through to Emilia's final melodramatic collapse.

Despite her dominance, Michael never shredded her strong surrounding cast. Handsome, tall and smooth-acting as Albert Gregor, Charles Workman easily falls into Emilia's grasp and complements this authoritative figure with passionately charged vocal muscularity, technical dexterity and sharp emotive turns.

Scene from Act III, The Makropulos Case 
Stephen Powell's broad and earthy baritone adds vocal weight to his middle-aged, stout and dignified Baron Jaroslav Prus. As the case lawyer Dr. Kolenatý, Dale Travis imprints a solid presence but with a similar earthy vocal quality and stage presence as Powell, the pair are presumably more indiscernible the further the audience is distant.

Joel Sorensen opens vocal proceedings strongly as the diligent but mildly dithering Vitek, Dr. Kolenatý's clerk, with his fine, piercing and distinctive ringing tenor. As his geeky daughter Kristina, second-year Adler Fellow, rich and fulsome soprano Julie Adams gives a charming performance as she swoons over her opera idol Emilia. Continuing a character list with few degrees of separation, Kristina's affable boyfriend Janek, the son of Prus, is sung with polish by tenor Brenton Ryan and Matthew O'Neill clearly looks and sings like he's been given a second shot at life after distracting proceedings as the aged and wiry Count Hauk-Sendorf.

Frank Philipp Schlössmann's generally black and white monotone set and costume designs and Duane Schuler's subdued lighting appropriately reflect the numbness of Emilia's life. It also effectively masks its 20th century setting well. A revolve presents the opera's three acts with real-time moving forward on a large clock. But the striking opening set, depicting Dr. Kolenatý's office in an exaggerated litter and height of books and papers, isn't repeated with the same flair in subsequent acts but there's no overall damage done.

The chance to see The Makropulos Case doesn't come often but San Francisco Opera have gladly revived it after just six years. Seeing it once for Nadja Michael's performance alone is worth it  but second time around you'll find there's so much more you'll discover.

San Francisco Opera
War Memorial Opera House
Until 29th October

Production Photos: Cory Weaver

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