Leoš Janáček’s 1926 opera The Makropulos Case, now at the Metropolitan Opera in a revival of Elijah Moshinsky’s stylish, noirish, German expressionist production, is gabby: instead of posing for arias and ensembles, it’s like endless recitative; the characters chatter unceasingly—about love, about law, and mostly about the mystery at the center of the story: when a rich old man died 100 years ago, whom did he intend to inherit his estate? And how does some gorgeous young singer seem to know century-old secrets?
Janáček was adept with the melody of natural speech; according to Benjamin Folkman’s program notes, the composer would wander the streets, making musical notations to describe the cadences he overheard, Henry Higgins-like. Focused on uneasy, upset characters, the score then adds anxiety to the story, doubled by Anthony Ward’s sets, which usually feature a canted wall of windows, oppressive in their tilt and their facilitation of angular lighting.
Adapted from a play by Karel Čapek, the man who gave us the word “robot,” Janáček’s libretto tells the story of a girl, called Emilia Marty in the present day, given a longevity potion that has allowed her to live for 300 years. The work is often compared to Shaw’s Back to Methuselah, in which longer lives make men smarter and stronger. (Čapek denied any intentional dialogue with that work.) In Makropulos, the 337-year-old heroine has no wisdom beyond cynicism; she uses her length of experience to settle legal disputes (petty, in the scheme of things) and rag on long-dead artists. She’s a brash and unsentimental woman—”he killed himself!” one character says, to which she replies, “so what? Lots of people do”—but the great Karita Mattila sings her dramatically, with vulnerability forming cracks in the steely persona. In the end, in a gorgeous final aria, she learns that it’s death that gives our lives value, and she poignantly chooses the finality of the grave.
But the opera does more than assuage our fears of death by arguing that death is good; it also comments cleverly on opera convention. Emilia Marty comes across as a classic type of heroine—driving, powerful—except she cannot die. She’s Carmen impervious to Don Jose’s blade. Thus, she becomes an eternal heartbreaker, exploiting her sexuality for gain, showing off with bitter pride the literal scars it’s got her. She laughs when an enraged lover tries to strangle her; she has become as soulless as a vampire on Buffy. As such, she seems meant also as a general rebuke to elders, suggesting that age often strips away kindness, decency and sympathy. As mortality goes, so goes morality.
The Metropolitan Opera will present The Makropulos Case again tomorrow night, and several more times through next week. More info here.
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