“Ever I grow older, learning many things,” said the great lawgiver Solon, who gave Athens her laws on condition that his fellow citizens live by them for ten years without change. They agreed, for they wanted his wisdom. He gave them the laws and then he left Athens for ten years. According to his saying he got wiser as he aged – unless he meant he always had something to learn no matter how old he got. Emilia Marty in Janacek’s opera got wiser as she aged, and in the end she teaches us something: that the rest of us never learn but die before we do, and should be the happier for it. As it turned out she had 337 years to learn the one great thing she knew: that it is our mortality that gives our lives their meaning. If fulfilled, our impossible desire to live forever would leave us with nothing to desire; but as we see along the way, there is another lesson for us to learn from this story, a fact we are left to contemplate in the aftermath – for the story assumes it without comment and never explains it.
Emilia’s mortality was virtually pre-empted. Her father Hieronymus Makropulos was Emperor Rudolph II’s court physician. In 1586 the Emperor commanded him to compound an elixir of youth for him. Then he made Makropulos test it on his sixteen year old daughter. Of course it would take the Emperor longer than a lifetime to be sure it worked, and so rather than eat this cake he had been given, the Emperor decided to have it, and threw Emilia’s father into prison. She escaped to Hungary, and her life as a traveling opera diva began. At the beginning of the opera, it is 1923 and the elixir has begun to wear off. The action consists in her recovering the secret formula for the elixir; the climax is that she decides not to use it but die instead. The middle term between that magical beginning in 1586 and this rueful end in 1923 was the one true love affair of her life, with Baron Prus, which took place in 1816 or so, and has become the basis of a legal contest as to the Baron’s legacy that has been going on over a hundred years. Emilia had borne the Baron (whom she still calls Pepi) a son out of wedlock, Ferdinand MacGregor (whom she calls Ferdi), whose great great-great-great grandson, Albert Gregor (whose mother, Emilia remembers, called him Berti) has inherited the lawsuit for the inheritance from his Gregor forbear. Albert’s attorney is Mr Kolenaty, the third generation of Kolenaty’s to handle the case on behalf of the latest Gregor against the latest Prus.
All the characters all are doing the same thing over and over again, and all fervently imagine themselves on the point of everything being resolved once and for all. But tonight each man finds himself on the verge of committing a true abomination, and this is the phenomenon the story fails to explain. For some reason every man Emilia Marty encounters falls in love with her. They latest include Albert Gregor, the current Baron Prus, and the baron’s son Janek Prus. Besides these, near the midpoint of the opera one of Emilia’s more recent lovers – the now aged and dotty Count Hauk-Sendorf – has come to her dressing room backstage because he seems to see in her the very image of a certain gypsy singer – one Eugenia Montez — who was his lover (only) fifty years ago. The Count (whom she calls Maxi) provides comic relief, but the other men have what standing they have in the legal squabble by virtue of being her sons or those of her adulterous love. For any of these to make love to her would be an abomination in its own way – and we are allowed to see the latter abomination at work, for after father Prus discovers his son Janek wooing her, the son runs off and commits suicide in shame while his father, unaware of this, is making love to her in her hotel room. She has gone so far as to seduce them in order to retrieve the formula for the elixir which is included among the legal documents that are the basis of the case.
As the curtain rises in Act Three, Emilia and the current Baron Prus are lying on her tussled bed. Her first words are, “Give me the envelope;” and his first words are, “Making love to you is like making love to a corpse!” The audience tends to laugh at this line – an index of their subconscious understanding, perhaps; and here lies the power of the whole piece. The author Karel Capek thought his story an unlikely subject for an opera, but he had not considered what music sounded like to Janacek. Among his operas this one has the least and sparsest melodic patches: here there is no safe harbor for a moment of love, like the duet at the end of the second act of Katya Kabanova, or the yearning and then transcending love themes of Jenufa, the only hint coming when Emilia reminisces about the Baron in Act One. Janacek finds ways to juxtapose the nonsensical hustle and bustle of daily life done with those frantic and autistic rhythms of his, against deeper drives and intuitions and fears done with longer lines in the strings, striving but rarely achieving resolution, the contrast achieved in full under compatriot Jiri Belohlavek’s baton. In all I feel the effect should be likened to that of Alban Berg.
Frank Philipp Schlössmann’s sets are done in black and white, a large curved wall structure that rotates between the acts, whose convex front forms the lawyer’s office in the first act, the convex back the backstage of the opera in the second, and by a partial rotation, Emilia’s hotel room in the third. It is shaded with hatching in the manner of a woodcut or etching, recalling David Hockney’s The Rake’s Progress, shading from light to dark grey. It is impersonal without being cold. An oversized clock is placed on the wall showing real time – the time of the performance not that of the action – as if to incorporate the temporality of our own lives as we watch. It almost works, but I was often distracted to notice how much can happen in just a few minutes, and then how time can fly. In all three acts Emilia wears white – a tight dress in the lawyer’s office, a white clown trousersuit with large black buttons which she had worn during her performance, along with a harlequin’s tear in the second; and a white nightgown in the third. Almost all the others wear gray and black.
The female lead gives this production whatever substance it achieves. Angela Denoke’s recent interpretation at the Paris Opera was flashy, broad, and disarming. But Karita Mattila, here in San Francisco, has achieved an interpretation that cannot be dismissed with a few adjectives, and should not be. She has found a way to do all the things the plot requires her to do, to show Emilia’s humor, warmth, physical debility, humanity, crass insensitivity, grasping desperation, canny cynicism, and finally her vulnerability as she gives away the piece of paper and falls supine on her hotel bed, praying “Pater Hemon” with her dying breath. That she was directed to lie in a cruciform pose was an impertinent distraction, for at this moment she is human not divine, though her aged wisdom places her in a category beyond the one we find ourselves returning to when the curtain drops and the lights come on and we begin again to desire what we should not and cannot have as if nothing happened.
— Ken Quandt