Triumphant Makropulos in Helsinki

FinlandFinland. Janacek The Makropulos Affair. Soloists, orchestra of the Finnish National Opera. Mikko Franck (conductor). 31.8.2012. Premiere. (GF)


Emilia Marty Karita Mattila
Albert Gregor Jürgen Müller
Vítek Hubert Francis
Kristina (Krista) Hanna Rantala
Jaroslav Prus Jaakko Kortekangas
Janek Joska Lehtinen
Dr Kolenatý Nicholas Söderlund
Stagehand Tapani Plathan
Cleaning woman/Chambermaid Niina Keitel
Hauk-Šendorf Juha Riihimäki


Director: Olivier Tambosi
Sets and costumes: Frank Philipp Schlössman
Lighting design: Duane Schuler
Co-production with the San Francisco Opera


Photo © Heiki Tuuli & Finnish National Opera

Janacek’s penultimate opera, based on a play by Karel Čapek, was premiered in Brno in 1926 and two years later it was also played in Prague. The same year Otto Klemperer also conducted The Makropulos Affair in Berlin and the next year Josef Krips took it to Frankfurt. But it took quite some time before it was performed with some kind of regularity. After the war Düsseldorf saw it in 1957 and the same production was played at the Holland Festival the following year. Elisabeth Söderström starred in the title role in Stockholm 1963 and in 1964 Sadler’s Wells gave a celebrated production with Charles Mackerras at the helm and Marie Collier taking the title part. Since then Anja Silja, Karan Armstrong, Jessye Norman and Catherine Malfitano among others have adopted the testing title role – and of course Karita Mattila, who is the pre-eminent Janacek soprano of our time with also Jenufa and Kata Kabanova in her repertoire. One reason why Makropuloshas been less frequently performed than the other two (and The cunning little vixen) is the difficulty, musically. In an interview in the programme book for this Finnish premiere Karita Mattila says: ‘it is very challenging for everyone involved, for the vocalists and the conductor alike. Another reason may be the opera’s unorthodox structure: there are no arias; the music does not stylistically conform to the format familiar from well-known operas … It is really demanding for the vocalists because acting out the role and interacting with the other vocalists on the stage really brings the piece to life, and together with the music, is crucial for holding the performance together. All the while, one has to sing a demanding score that resembles dialogue as naturally as if one was acting in a drama on the stage. And of course it all has to look and sound effortless; vocalists must avoid obvious eye contact with the conductor for fear of the audience taking notice, and so various methods have to be employed in the staging so that some kind of necessary visual with the conductor can be maintained, while still moving about in a believable manner on the stage with one’s colleagues!’

The background of the plot is that more than three hundred years earlier a Greek alchemist Makropulos was employed by the Habsburg Emperor Rudolf II to make an elixir that would give the Emperor eternal life. But before taking it he demanded that Makropulos should try it on his own sixteen-year-old daughter, Elina. She became seriously ill and her father was imprisoned. She recovered however and ran away and it turned out that the elixir actually worked. So the heroine, now under the name of Emilia Marty, has during her 337 years of life gone through many identities, always with the initials E.T. Now that the power of the elixir is running out she has returned to Prague to find the formula that she knows exists, and get a new lease of life.

Čapek’s play was described as a comedy and Janacek, who wrote his own libretto, has retained quite a lot of the humour, though the very end is deeply serious. As Wikipedia puts it: ‘Elina has realized that perpetual youth has led her to exhausted apathy, and resolves to allow death to come naturally to her’.

Anyone who knows Janacek’s late orchestral music, notably the often played Sinfonietta, will recognize the idiom. The long overture is masterly and immensely beautiful and all through the opera it is the orchestra that dominates the proceedings, while the vocal parts are subordinated and principally sung in expressive but melodically less memorable recitative. There are still many moments, not least Emilia Marty’s solos in the last act, that entice the ear, and there are really no longueurs in this dramatically compressed work. Jenufa is certainly easier to digest, Makropulos somewhat harsher tonal language may take some time to come to terms with but no one with even the slightest interest in ‘modern’ music should miss the opportunity to hear, and see, one of the true masterpieces of 20th century opera.

One further reason, besides the musical and dramatic qualities, is the staging. Frank Philipp Schlössmann’s sets are utterly telling. The first act, playing at Dr Kolenatý’s law office, is dominated by enormous bookshelves, where his assistant and the lawyer himself climb to pick down documents. On desks and tables and on the floor there are masses of papers. Act two takes place in a theatre where Emilia Marty has just performed, sparse, mainly grey colours. In the third act grey also dominates, it’s furnished with a bed where Emilia and Prus have just made love. Costumes are period, i.e. early 1920s. All this contributes to a sense of realism, reality – in spite of the quite unrealistic concept that the main character is a 337-year-old woman, still beautiful and looking hardly a day over 30. Karita Mattila has turned fifty but her looks are as youthful as ever and she has retained her creamy voice in marvellous shape. The tone is totally free from blemishes and it is pure gold that she pours out. As an actress she is absolutely tremendous, for once the hype ‘Mattila is Emilia Marty’ is justified. Ten years ago she was, according to reviews I’ve seen, a wonderful Jenufa. I saw the production, incidentally with the same production team, but unfortunately the one performance Karita Mattila didn’t sing. Finally catching her in a Janacek role was a blessing.

But of course this opera is not just a one-woman-show. Jürgen Müller rendered Albert Gregor’s dual feelings with great intensity, though his metallic penetrating tone was a little uncomfortable for the ear. Hubert Francis was a fairly jovial Vitek and Hanna Rantala made his daughter Krista believably uncertain of herself. A towering stage personality was Jaakko Kortekangas as Jaroslav Prus, singing with impressive tone. I really look forward to hearing him again as Posa in the new production of Don Carlo in October. Joska Lehtinen was a rather pale Janek, ideally suited for that unhappy character. Nicholas Söderlund, still in his mid-thirties, is a further example of the seemingly inexhaustible supply of good Finnish basses and was a rather rumbustious Kolenaty and there were good cameos by Tapani Plathan and Niina Keitel. The feeble-minded old Hauk-Šendorf, who turned mad fifty years earlier when one of Emilia Marty’s alter egos left him, was movingly acted by Juha Riihimäki.

The heroine is no doubt the dominating figure in this opera and Karita Mattila, as I have already pointed out, is in every respect the incarnation of this remarkable Makropulos woman. But there is also a hero in this production: Mikko Franck. Since 1 January 2008 he has been Artistic Director and General Music Director of the Finnish National Opera, but he has announced that after the present season he is going to step down. He may have been controversial at times but his grip of all the musical aspects of any score I have heard him conduct, has been superb. Here he illuminated the complicated structure of The Makropulos Affair powerfully and with rhythmic springiness and the National Opera Orchestra – there is no chorus in this opera – responded with high octane playing.

A triumphant Makropulos!

Göran Forsling