Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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Witness for the Prosecution

April 28, 2012

Karita Mattila as Emilia Marty Photo by Ken Howard/Met Opera 2012
Spoiler alert: Death, or perhaps the relative brevity of life, is precisely what gives human existence its joys and meaning. Without it the differences between good and evil, happiness and sadness, and even life and death itself become increasingly meaningless. Or at least this is the realization Emilia Marty, the diva at the center of Janáček’s opera The Makropulos Case, comes to in her devastatingly beautiful final aria. She should know given that she has lived more than anyone else - well over 300 years. But the potion that has spurred her longevity, which she has misplaced, may be wearing off and she is embroiled in someone else’s elaborate legal proceedings to try and sort all this out. Of course real vocal artists are only too human. However if you’re looking for a soprano who may lie just outside this category on the “super” end, it would be Karita Mattila who stars as Emilia Marty in the revival of The Makropulos Case which opened Friday at The Metropolitan Opera. All the power and joy of Marty’s final reflection is delivered by Mattila with more intensity than any artist has produced on the Met stage throughout this entire particularly dismal opera season at the Met. Whether she is channeling world weary cynicism, big screen glamor, or frank sexuality, Mattila’s got it all in this pristine comprehensive performance that occupies nearly every moment of this show.

Her primary collaborator in achieving this singular success is conductor Jiří Bělohlávek, the world’s current leading authority on Janáček’s operas. He and Mattila worked alongside to overwhelming effect in San Francisco with the same opera in 2010, and the Met got the memo, bringing their own 1996 production from Elijah Moshinsky back as a vehicle for the pair. And it almost works as well. Bělohlávek and the Met Opera orchestra plumbed great articulate sound from Janáček’s at turns lush and concise score. Certainly Mattila delivers another superb interpretation of the role of Emilia Marty with a piercing upper register and her trademark physicality. There's just a whisper of that weariness she manages to project in that sound that makes her a perfect fit for this part. But she is somewhat let down by Moshinsky’s production that is visually immersed in an old-style Hollywood glamor which emphasizes the bitchy diva aspects of Marty's character over her more fragile and exposed self which is still struggling with potential mortality after all these years. There are some beautiful tableaux. Marty lounges around on an empty opera set in Act II which includes the giant bust of a reclining sphinx. Again in the opera’s closing moments she is confronted by a pixilated version of her own image on a billboard that bursts into flames much like the lost formula of her, until now, endless youth. But these images score more points for their beauty than for their meaning in a profound and challenging opera.

Mattila is surrounded by a seasoned cast, some of whom come off quite well. Bass-baritone Johan Reuter sang the role of Jaroslav Prus, the litigant who discovers who Marty is and attempts to use it to his advantage. His vocal ease and power argued the case that his upcoming Wotan in Munich should be worth anticipating. Tom Fox was certainly believable as the lawyer Dr. Kolenaty. The evening also marked the return of tenor Richard Leech to the Met for the first time in seven seasons as Albert Gregor, Emilia Marty’s descendant from one of her many previous incarnations and another litigant. Leech could slip between singing and yelling at times, but he was convincing enough on stage as the most incompetent of suitors under Marty’s onslaught. But this is not an opera about a diva's boys on the side. And no matter what else the Met's revival of The Makropulos Case doesn't have, it does have one of the most intriguing divas alive in a signature role. So if you've been disappointed with this year's opera season at the Met, here's your chance to put a positive cap on the last nine months with a truly unparalleled performance. The show runs through May 11.


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