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) to be streamed by San Francisco Opera this weekend. This 2010 co-production between San Francisco Opera and Finnish National Opera is the latest transmission of the San Francisco company’s Opera is ON initiative – whereby productions from its archives are streamed online to audiences around the world during the coronavirus pandemic.
Directed by Olivier Tambosi, with design by Frank Philipp Schlössmann and lighting by Duane Schuler, The Makropulos Case features Finnish soprano Karita Mattila in her role debut as the beguiling diva Emilia Marty, Slovak tenor Miro Dvorsky as her son Albert Gregor, the late German bass-baritone Gerd Grochowski as Baron Jaroslav Prus – a relative of Albert’s late father – and American bass-baritone Dale Travis as barrister Dr Kolenatý. The San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus are led by the late Czech maestro Jiří Bělohlávek, and direction for the screen is by Frank Zamacona.
Leoš Janáček’s penultimate 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 Čapek. In Čapek’s 1922 play, the origins of the story go back more than 300 years, when Hieronymus Makropulos, the court alchemist to the Bohemian monarch Rudolf II, concocted an elixir of youth for the king. Rudolf ordered that it first be tested on Makropulos’ daughter, Elina, and the dose appeared to be fatal, but Elina did not die. She recovered and 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 assumed names which would enable her to retain the initials E M.
The opera takes up Elina’s story at a time when Gregor – the illegitimate son of her 19th century persona – is engaged in a battle with his late father’s family over the estate to which he believes he is the rightful heir. Enter the beautiful, cold and cynical diva Emilia Marty (the most recent identity of Elina Makropulos), who knows the whereabouts of the documents which would clear up the dispute about the estate, as well as the formula for the elixir which would prolong her life further, and it’s against this background that the action of the opera takes place.
The Makropulos Case is performed in Czech with English subtitles and is available for free online viewing on Saturday, July 25 from 10.00 am PDT until 11.59 pm PDT on Sunday, July 26. More information can be found on the San Francisco Opera website.