Tuesday, November 16, 2010
San Francisco Opera, Janacek's "The Makropulos Case"
What's even more intriguing is her physical presence. With bird-like features, cutting eyes, a sharp sweep of blonde hair and a lithe, athletic figure, Mattila spends the first act striking one unnatural, uncomfortable pose after another, making the act of getting herself into an armchair into a symphony of effort. She has no concern for social constructs - especially personal space - and succeeds in casting a spell over every male onstage (the lone female, apprentice singer Kristina, is already a disciple). The most apparent victim is Albert Gregor, the man who has just inherited a fortune thanks to her intercession. The intrigue doubles in the second act, when Marty, still dressed as the clown Pierrot, appears backstage to encounter Count Hauk-Sendorf (Matthew O'Neill), an old eccentric who claims to be her former lover. Mattila reacts to the reunion by performing a bit of flamenco, doing the splits and rolling around with the Count in one gymnastic position after another. (Mattila is reported to be a fan of yoga.)
Being a mystery, the story depends largely on exposition, and Janacek creates a brilliant frame for delivering it. He extends the hurly-burly orchestral action of the overture (meant to symbolize the hyperactivity of 20th-century life) while his bureaucrats deliver the case history in rapid single-note parlandos, handing it off from the clerk Vitek (tenor Thomas Glenn) to Dr. Kolenaty (bass-baritone Dale Travis) to Gregor, played by tenor Miro Dvorsky. Dvorsky does a superb job of leaping from these straight lines into the high-lying flights of Gregor's newfound passion. German bass-baritone Gerd Grochowski as Prus, the loser of the case, provides the only calm presence, and the only man with half a chance at Emilia's weird affections.
Mattila possesses a strong lyric instrument, and bends it in some astonishing ways to make the most of Janacek's quirky score. Her more traditional lyric side comes into play in Act III, as Emilia resigns herself to her fate, singing a slow waltz theme as the orchestra modulates through several keys beneath her. The performance of the orchestra under Czech conductor Jiri Belohlavek is impressively robust, especially in the overture.
The production design by Frank Philipp Schlossman is a model of mid-century modernism, the law office a monochrome curve of packed bookshelves, the backdrops shaded with the crosshatch style often used in comic books. The set employs large illuminated clocks bearing the actual performance time - time being a primary theme of the story. The costumes are also '50s-through-'60s, including Emilia's striking strapless ball gown in Act III, inspired by a Givenchy design.
It's understandable that Makropulos is not performed more often; its requirement for virtuosic singing actors is simply too demanding. Working with director Olivier Tambosi, however, Mattila has developed the character in this, her role debut, to an astounding level. One could see her singlehandedly inspiring a new wave of productions.
Through Nov. 28, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. Sung in Czech with English supertitles. $20-$360. 415/864-3330, sfopera.com.
Image: Karita Mattila (Emilia Marty). Photo by Cory Weaver.
Michael J. Vaughn is a 25-year opera critic and novelist. His latest book, Operaville, will be relased in early 2011 with a companion CD by soprano Barbara Divis. Available at amazon.com.