Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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Siempre Viva

November 14, 2010

 
Miro Dvorsky and Karita Mattila Photo: Cory Weaver/SF Opera 2010

One of the joys of opera is that any single performance can strive for perfection, but only rarely is it achieved due to a very long list of artistic variables. When it does happen, it is an absolute thrill. So I'm happy to report that the new production of Leoš Janáček’s The Makropulos Case that opened in San Francisco this week is about as close as one can hope to get to operatic perfection. It’s a dense tale of a woman who had something close to perpetual youth forced upon her only to discover over three hundred years later that maybe immortality isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Yet despite this weighty material and a fair amount of depravity, The Makropulos Case makes for one riveting evening in the theater.

The starring role of Emilia Marty, an opera singer of many more years than she would readily admit, is sung by soprano Karita Mattila with such searing clarity and ease that it cuts right through you like a cold North wind. Mattila's beautiful voice is only that much more remarkable considering the high level of physicality she puts into this part, frequently moving about the stage in an almost athletic way. Mattila is taking on this Janáček role for the first time after hugely successful turns as both Jenufa and Kátya Kabanová. With an Emilia Marty this significant under her belt, it can now be said she has done more for the 20th-century operatic masterpieces of Leoš Janáček than anyone since Elisabeth Söderström. Of course, San Francisco has a history of excellent Janáček productions due in no small part to the work of Sir Charles Mackerras who was the company’s principal guest conductor from 1993 to 1999 and to whose memory this run of The Makropulos Case is dedicated. I for one can not think of a finer tribute.

Mattila is surrounded by a wonderful cast including Gerd Grochowski as Baron Prus and Miro Dvorsky as Albert Gregor. But her best companions in this tour de force are director Olivier Tambosi and conductor Jiří Bělohlávek. Tambosi, who has directed Mattila in Janáček operas with great success in the past has placed the action amongst a set of large curved walls that rotate, revealing the various interiors described in the libretto, including the massive law office of the first Act. When the curtain first rises, these partitions rapidly spin around one another highlighting only the large glowing clock faces that dominate the wall of each set piece. The color scheme is largely balck and white with a gray scale gradient dominating the walls and set decoration. Soon Mattila enters the picture looking every bit like a young Kim Novac. When she sings her final aria she is draped in a floor-length white gown and her short blond hair is set off in the intense glow of white lighting from above. It is a striking image like so many in this production.

Jiří Bělohlávek is known for his interpretations of Janáček and he is the clear heir to the Mackerras legacy. The orchestra played beautifully in a score that calls for their musical contribution to almost act as an entirely separate character in the drama. Much like the staging, everything in the pit worked beautifully well with the other elements of the production. The show leaves you exhilarated and is undoubtedly one of the best productions seen on the San Francisco stage in the last five years. There are four more performances of The Makropulos Case through November 28. If I could, I’d see every one of them. You should make an effort to at least see one.

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Comments:

correction for you - Gerd Grochowski - he was wonderful in Janacek's House of the Dead at Aix-en-Provence!
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