The Makropulos Case returns to the Met starring Karita Mattila
This year, the Met brings back Elijah Moshinsky's production of Janacek's masterpiece "The Makropulos Case" for the first time since 2001. When last performed, the New York Times praised it for being "attractive in a spare, modernistic way." The production of course is most famous for its fatal premiere back on January 5, 1996 when tenor Richard Versalle suffered a heart attack moments after singing the infamous line "You can only live so long" and fell from a 20 foot ladder to his death. I have never seen the Met's production which makes it difficult for me to comment further.
The opera is known for its complex main character of Emilia Marty/ Elina Makropulos, a 337 year old opera singer who can best be described as every human contradiction of human nature. She is centuries old, and yet retains a youthful appearance; passionate and yet bored with her existence; filled with sexual desire and at the same time tired with it (one line during the opera has her saying that sex "isn't worth it"). Marty is also considered the greatest singer in the world and Janacek's writing for the lead soprano is uncompromisingly difficult. As a result, the soprano who takes on this role must not only convince the audience of the character's complexity, but conquer Jancek's tremendously difficult vocal writing. And by the way, the opera is written in Czech, a language with a limited operatic repertoire and even more limited stable of interpreters. Last time the opera was brought to the Met, Catherine Malfitano triumphed as Emilia Marty. Now the task will fall to the increasingly polarizing Karita Mattila. In the early part of the decade, Mattila was looked upon as one of the great singing actresses for her tremendous portrayals of the German repertoire. In recent years, she has taken to the Italian repertoire with such complex roles in Puccini's Tosca and Manon Lescaut as well as Verdi's Ballo in Maschera. In my opinion, to call her ventures into this repertoire unsatisfactory is at best kind. Her voice, which is well suited to Wagner's "lighter" fare, hardly has the fluidity or flexibility demanded of Italian opera. She never sounded comfortable in these roles vocally (which may have negatively affected her strong acting abilities) and recently stated that she was retiring the role of Tosca. As much as her voice has disappointed me in recent years, I am not counting out her possibility of putting together a strong performance of Janacek's masterpiece. After all, she has shown past aptitude for the Czech master's music in such roles as "Jenufa" and "Kata Kabanova." Furthermore, her role debut as Emilia Marty was a resounding triumph last season at the San Francisco Opera where she was praised for singing "with such searing clarity and ease that it cuts right through you like a cold North wind." Other critics noted that Mattila's performance was all the more remarkable for her ability to maintain a secure vocal quality through all the "gymnastics" demanded of her. Judging from overpoweringly positive reception to her role debut, it is likely that Matilla's Emilia Marty will astound audiences at the Met.
The Met has also brought in Kurt Striet, Johan Reuter, and Tom Fox to support Mattila. Most importantly, Janacek specialist Jiri Belohlavek will be at the podium for this run. Belohlavek was handpicked by Matilla for her San Francisco Debut and it is likely that the request was also extended to the Met. Belohlavek was also praised for his musical account of Janacek's dense score. The Classical Review in particular stated that that Belohlavek had "an innate sense of how this challenging music should go, keeping firm forward momentum and supporting the singers sensitively, while forcefully bringing out the surging elemental power of Janacek's restless score."
Conclusion: As stated before, "The Makropulos Case" is a seldom performed masterpiece. For hardcore opera fans, this may be the only opportunity in a few years to catch this underrated work. Furthermore, Mattila is on the heals of a tremendous debut in San Francisco and this may be a once in a lifetime opportunity to watch her carry over this success to the Met stage. However, this opera is really only for the hardcore or the adventurous opera fan. The music is very modern and the plot extremely dense and complicated. More casual fans should definitely look elsewhere.