If you had the chance to live for three centuries would you take it? This is one of the questions you may ask yourself after an evening of witnessing the suffering of Emilia Marty – a beautiful opera singer with a world of knowledge that goes far beyond our time. Leoš Janáček’s (1854 – 1928) Makropulous Affair was performed semi-staged last night at the Royal Albert Hall, after more than 20 years of absence from the BBC Proms, by the BBC Symphony Orchestra with its former conductor Jiří Bělohlávek, an all-round talented cast of Czech soloists and the radiant Finnish soprano, Karita Mattila.
Mattila is no stranger to Janáček as she has performed many lead roles from the Czech composer’s work, which includes Katya Kabanova, Jenůfa and most recently the Kostelnička – one of opera’s villainous evildoers – at the Royal Festival Hall with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra this April.
Originally influenced by the play written by Karel Čapek, the opera begins in 1922 at Dr. Kolenatý’s office where a clerk Vítek is fussing over papers for a century-long family case, where Baron Josef Ferdinand Prus’s estate is challenged by Ferdinand Gregor. Yet, what may seem a like a legal battle between families swiftly turns into a puzzling mystery over Emilia Marty’s acute knowledge of Baron Prus and Ferdinand Gregor.
By the final act, in a tense and dramatic dialectic, where words and ravishing music is revealed, we discover that Emilia Marty is, in fact, Elina Makropulos – the daughter of Emperor Rudolf’s Greek physician who was ordered to test his elixir of life to his 16-year-old daughter. Through the generations, she has changed her name with the same initials EM – Eugenia Montez, Elsa Muller, Ekaterina Myshkin, Ellian MacGregor – and finally, she finds solace in her last days aged 337.
When Matilla comes to town it is always worth trying to wangle a ticket to see her – last night was no exception. Her empowering stage presence in a dashing red dress captured the complexity and seductive qualities of Emilia’s character. Singing as the revered opera singer, she laughed and humoured those around her including young, aspiring singer Kristina. She also titillated and enticed many men such as Janek, Prus’s son, who commits suicide for her love, and Prus himself who she leaves feeling cold. Mattila’s voice, however, is bold and animated as ever. She manages to hold out and show the best part of her vocal prowess until the very last scenes where all is revealed, and her identity is exposed.
The cast also deserves credit for giving a grand picture of this contemporary opera, which takes place in various locations; a lawyer’s office, the backstage of a theatre and a hotel room. Given the lack of scene changes or props provided, the extraordinary cast succeeded in bringing the story to life. Aleš Briscein (Gregor), Gustáv Beláček (Dr Kolenatý) and Svatopluk Sem (Baron Jaroslav Prus) sang with richness and depth as Emilia’s pawns in the legal battle over a will that had more than they had ever dreamed of. With smaller roles sung by Jan Vacík (Vítek), Aleš Voráček (Janek), Jan Ježek (Hauk-Šendorf), Jana Hrochová Wallingerová (Chambermaid) and Jiří Klecker (Stage Technician) as part of the comedy features, which balance out the opera seria at the opera’s conclusion. This leaves soprano Eva Štěrbová as the curious and sweet-tone Kristina, the benchmark to Emilia’s beauty.
There is no question that Jiří Bělohlávek felt at home with the BBC Symphony Orchestra – his knowledge of Janáček’s music is visible through and through. There is a cinematic and dream-like quality about Janacek’s score, here, that is spellbinding and easy to love. The BBC Symphony Orchestra was also superb. They seemed comfortable with the challenges of the music particularly since there isn’t a specific aria to remember, yet this is the charm of the opera. The final scene is the most devastating and ardent, where the stage went green and Emilia sang with her last breath.