The intriguing case of a woman who has lived for over 300 years, and her search for a missing formula to extend her lifespan even further, provide the backdrop to Leoš Janáček’s dramatic opera Věc Makropulos (The Makropulos Case) – the latest production by San Francisco Opera in a season which has already demonstrated the Company’s flair for creative programming.
French director Olivier Tambosi returns to the War Memorial Opera House to recreate his highly acclaimed 2010 staging of this work, which features German soprano Nadja Michael as the beguiling diva Emilia Marty, American tenor Charles Workman, in his Company debut, as Albert Gregor, and American baritone Stephen Powell as Baron Jaroslav Prus. The San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus (Director Ian Robertson) are led in a debut appearance for the Company by Russian conductor Mikhail Tatarnikov.
The performances of this co-production with Finnish National Opera mark the 50th anniversary of the United States premiere of The Makropulos Case, which was staged by San Francisco Opera in 1966.
Janáček’s opera, for which he also wrote the libretto, is set in Prague in the early part of the 20th Century, and based on a play of the same name by the Czech author, and pioneer of science fiction, Karel Capek (1890-1938). In Capek’s play – written in 1922 – the origins of the story go back more than 300 years, when Hieronymus Makropulos, the court alchemist to the Bohemian monarch Rudolf II (1552-1612), concocted an elixir of youth for the sovereign. Rudolf ordered that it be tested on Makropulos’ daughter, Elina, which apparently proved fatal, and the alchemist was jailed. Elina, however, did not die, but after her recovery she escaped, with a lifespan of 300 years ahead of her. During the following three centuries, she took on various identities, had many affairs, never aged beyond 30 years, and always took on names which would enable her to retain the initials E M.
During the early part of the 19th century, as opera singer Ellian MacGregor, she had an illegitimate son, Ferdinand Gregor, by a Bohemian nobleman, Baron Josef Ferdinand Prus, and although Gregor was destined to inherit his father’s estate, there was no proof of this when Prus died, and the estate passed to a cousin.
The opera takes up the story in the early part of the 20th century, with the Gregor and Prus families still engaged in a legal battle over the estate. The beautiful, but cold and cynical diva, Emilia Marty (the most recent identity of Elina Makropulos), learns about this case, and knows that there are documents in the vaults of the current Baron Prus which would clear up the dispute about the estate. She is also aware that she’s nearing the end of her extended lifespan, and that the formula for the elixir which would prolong her life even further, is to be found with these documents. The opera revolves around Emilia’s quest to lay hands on the formula, but when she finally does, she realizes that she no longer wishes to extend her life, and ultimately accepts her humanity.
German soprano Nadja Michael – who, according to Associated Press, “commands the stage in a manner few sopranos do” – made her San Francisco Opera debut (and also her American debut) in 2009, in the title role of the Company’s production of Salome. Having appeared on some of the world’s most famous stages – including the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, Vienna State Opera, Royal Opera, Covent Garden, Teatro San Carlo in Naples, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Teatro al Fenice in Venice, Theatre du Capitole in Toulouse, and at the Glyndebourne and Salzburg Festivals – Ms Michael has a repertoire which includes some notably challenging roles for a dramatic soprano. These include Cherubini’s Médée, Leonore in Beethoven’s Fidelio, Marietta in Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt, Floria Tosca, and Cassandre and Didon in Berlioz’s Les Troyens.
Olivier Tambosi’s 2010 staging of The Makropulos Case for San Francisco Opera was hailed by the San Francisco Chronicle as “a superbly inventive production” and “an unalloyed triumph”. Mr Tambosi returned to the War Memorial Opera House in July of this year for his production of Janáček’s Jenůfa, a work which he directs for the Metropolitan Opera later this month. His 2016-17 season also includes productions of Manon Lescaut for Staatsoper Hannover, Cosi fan tutte for Münchner Staatstheater, Falstaff for San Diego Opera, and Man of La Mancha at the Volksoper Wien.
Acclaimed Russian conductor Mikhail Tatarnikov is Music Director and Principal Conductor of the Mikhailovsky Theatre St Petersburg. In past seasons he has led productions at major opera houses such as Teatro alla Scala Milan, Bayerische Staatsoper, La Monnaie Brussels, Opéra de Bordeaux, Opéra de Monte-Carlo, Theater an der Wien, Latvian National Opera in Riga, Bergen Opera, Komische Oper Berlin, and the Mariinsky Theatre, as well as Russia’s first ever performance of Britten’s Billy Budd at the Mikhailovsky Theatre. He regards both Benjamin Britten and Leoš Janáček’ as “two absolutely exceptional figures in 20th century music”.
Looking ahead, in addition to a number of ballet and opera productions at the Mikhailovsky, Maestro Tatarnikov will be conducting a gala concert at the Gran Teatre del Liceu Barcelona with Dmitry Hvorostovsky, Tcherniakov’s new production of The Snow Maiden at the Bastille Paris, Jurgen Flynn’s new production of Manon Lescaut for Deutsche Staatsoper Berlin, and a revival of Prince Igor at Hamburgische Staatsoper.
San Francisco Opera’s production of The Makropulos Case is sung in Czech with English supertitles. It opens on Friday, October 14 and runs for five performances, until October 29. For more information on the production and tickets, visit www.sfopera.com.
San Francisco Opera program notes
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