Opera Critic

“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

Bartlett Sher’s approach to Offenbach’s greatest work and swan song (it premiered after his death) replaced yet another Zeffirelli production last season, albeit with serious casting difficulties and an essay into production values that some observers found too busy.  This season Tales of Hoffmann has returned with a more stable musical effort and streamlined approach.  The revisited production’s overall effect is quite pleasing.  Taken from the director’s fanciful study of Kafka and Fellini, this adaptation of nineteenth-century dark Romanticism to a 1920s dreariness leaves the opera’s themes of alienation, desperation, and personal growth through suffering all the more poignant.  The principals are still dressed in elusive black.  Luther’s bar appears a bit more cheerful.  Spalanzani’s workshop has become something less of a circus.  Crespel’s house is a model suggestion of bourgeois propriety.  Venice remains a place of lustful intrigue and decadent orgies, but perhaps not on the same scale.

The production’s premiere last season was to feature superstar tenor Rolando Villazon in the title role, but alas vocal difficulties sent him into eclipse.  In Giuseppe Filianoti, however, the Met has found a more than credible replacement.  Bringing a sunny Italiante tone to the role of the doomed lover, Filianoti sang with agility in the solo parts as well as the opera’s challenging ensembles.  He remained sympathetic throughout the afternoon.  His four nemeses – one in each of the failed love affairs – were ably sung by Russian bass Ildar Abdrazakov, a singer of stentorian power who held his own throughout the performance.  It was a misfortune that the masculine talent had no consistent analogue in the roles of Hoffmann’s loves.  Only Romanian soprano Elena Mosuc’s Olympia came close to their quality of singing.  Possessing a gorgeous coloratura sound, she made the first act the most enjoyable by far.  Hibla Gerzmava’s Antonia flagged disappointingly from the very beginning in “Elle a fui, la tourterelle” and left a pallid impression following on Anna Netrebko’s performance of the part last season.  Albanian mezzo-soprano Enkelejda Shkosa’s Giuletta did not wholly lack grace but sounded too throaty to make the Venice scene work.  Kate Lindsey, the only principal held over from last season, repeated her musically and dramatically solid delivery of Nicklausse, Hoffman’s muse.  Joel Sorenson sang the servant roles with comic relief.  Dean Peterson made a strong impression as Luther and Crespel.  Wendy White, a Met comprimario stalwart, sang Antonia’s mother but showed signs of age and diminished voice.  In Patrick Fournillier, who made his debut with this revival, the Met has found a conductor capable of eliciting Latinate charm for the French repertoire.

One would never have imagined Otto Schenk’s storybook production of this middle Verdi masterpiece – now more than 20 years old — to command the fresh critical comment it has received since its reintroduction in the first week of the new season.  But the replacement of the producer’s monumental Ring Cycle with the beginning of Robert Lepage’s dismal effort has led many spectators to reflect on the endurance of Schenk’s conventionality.  In every way it remains a pleasing backdrop for this morality tale warning against the evil that can come of seeking revenge.

The Met did not display the soaring vocal heights of its roster to fill the cast, but the effort was fine enough.  Georgian baritone George Gagnidze dominated the performance with an authoritative interpretation of the title role.  His fine dramatic skill and burly physique captured the pathos of the alienated hunchback and outraged father, while his excellent line delivered the music of this quintessential Verdi baritone role with passion and verve.  The only unfortunate moment came in the second act’s exciting finale, when some poor coordination with the conductor led him to fumble the phrasing and miss the drawn out “sapra” we really want to hear.  Otherwise it was a commanding performance that only showed signs of slackening in the final scene.  Christine Schaefer sang Gilda a bit too quietly, suggesting, as she has in other roles, that her voice might be too small for the Met.  But delicate phrasing in the set piece aria “Caro nome” and her duets with Rigoletto and the Duke betrayed fine technique that allowed for a commendable performance.  Tenor Francesco Meli’s talents fell mainly in the ensembles, but disappointingly so considering how important the Duke’s arias are to the work, and to a tenor making his house debut in the role.  Murmurs of audience recognition at the first orchestral notes of the famous “La donna e mobile” suggested expectations of great singing.  Meli, however, simply did not have the high notes or necessary legato there or in “Parmi veder le lagrime” to reach the role’s proper stature.  Indeed, the vocal weaknesses nearly made the character seem introverted.  Nino Surguladze’s Maddalena (her debut role) had to draw some verve out of him with a suggestive yank across a table in Sparafucile’s inn.  Her mezzo and bass Andrea Silvestrelli’s stentorian (if a bit rough) Sparafucile shored up the lesser roles.  Keith Miller’s Monterone, another outraged father who drives the plot by cursing Rigoletto, stood out among the comprimario cast.  Debutant conductor Paolo Arrivabeni’s fortuitous name heralded an excellent orchestral reading, though at times he seemed to lose touch with the singers on stage.

Washington’s truncated season continues this fall with a new production of Richard Strauss’s one-act shocker.  Staged by Francesca Zambello, whose Ring Cycle effort here was cut short by budgetary problems, the staging features the famous soprano Deborah Voigt in her company debut in the title role.  Zambello stuck close to Biblical idiom for the production, giving us a very literal depiction of Herod’s court that vaguely evokes the Hollywood genre pictures of two generations ago without missing the work’s important color metaphors (white, red, and purple, all of which suggest death and decay).  Her major innovation is to place a kind of translucent shower curtain across the stage to separate the scene of action from the off stage banquet.  The idea is to show that all the characters are under observation and that larger constraints (society? public opinion? morality?) shape, direct, and condemn actions and choices.

This is a heavy interpretation of a work mainly about the relationship between power and death.  While not the poorest or most tasteless interpretation of Salome out there, it does not exactly ring true on stage.  Unusual twists water down the themes somewhat further.  Jokanaan spends much of his time on stage looking conflicted between his horror of Salome, well established in the music and libretto, and an erotic fascination with the temptress that Zambello seems to imagine in him.  Augmenting the Dance of the Seven Veils with four dancers all more talented than Voigt, whose nudity is, for the better, suggested at the end subtracts from the piece’s seductive effect.

Nevertheless, the cast soldiered along under the firm baton of Washington National’s new music director Philippe Auguin.  He led an energetic performance that recalled how well the orchestra can play when in the proper hands.  Voigt’s soprano has not always lived up to its reputation for size or beauty, but in the Strauss repertoire she can be called credible at least.  Her Salome was vivid and strong, benefiting from fine supports and an impressive dramatic interpretation.  Daniel Sumegi sounded rougher and more forced as Iokanaan but still captured the Prophet’s passions and conviction.  Richard Berkeley-Steele’s fading dramatic tenor was easily adapted to Herod, whom he sang convincingly in his Washington debut.  He was well matched by debuting German mezzo-soprano Doris Soffel’s Herodias, who held the necessary dramatic edge over him throughout the evening.  Sean Panikkar stood out among the talented supporting cast in the role of Narraboth, a part that can leave a strong impression when performed by a fine tenor.