For the second time this calendar year, the War Memorial Opera House is hosting a staging by Olivier Tambosi of an opera by Leoš Janáček. This past June the opera was Jenůfa in a production originally created for the Hamburg State Opera. Last night San Francisco Opera (SFO) gave the first of five revival productions of The Makropulos Affair (one of the English translations of the Czech title Věc Makropulos), which Tambosi staged for a co-production with the Finnish National Opera. The version was last seen here in November of 2010, and Tambosi returned to San Francisco to oversee the revival. The opera is an adaptation of a play by Karel Čapek for which Janáček wrote his own libretto.
It is hard to tell which is the more outrageous element of Čapek’s narrative, the idea of a legal dispute over a will that has been going on for almost 100 years or the resolution of that dispute through the intervention of a woman over 300 years old who has not lost her youthful appearance. This is clearly the stuff of prose, rather than poetry; and those fortunate enough to have seen Jenůfa in June know that Janáček had an uncanny knack for realizing prose discourse through music. (This was even the case when words were not being sung or uttered, as is vividly apparent in his first string quartet, which is basically a “narration” of Leo Tolstoy’s lurid novella, The Kreutzer Sonata.) As the Makropulos score unfolds, there is almost never any suggestion of “song,” let alone what we would usually call “themes” or their development. Indeed, when he spoke at the Insight Panel for Jenůfa, conductor Jiří Bělohlávek noted that elements of Philip Glass could be found in the score, which was probably his way of characterizing the significant role that repetitive structures play in Janáček’s musical rhetoric.
Last night’s conductor was Mikhail Tatarnikov, making his SFO debut. He clearly appreciated the extent to which those repetitive structures kept Janáček’s dynamo moving and how that almost machine-like rhetoric captured the ordinariness of a law office or the matter-of-fact way in which the title character (currently assuming the name Emilia Marty) can talk about conditions at the time the case was first filed as if they had happened yesterday. However, there is another aspect of Janáček’s musical language that is just as critical, which is his ability to “pull out all the stops” with rich instrumental outbursts that punctuate the tedium of the mundane, often at unexpected moments. About a year after he completed Makropulos, Janáček composed his instrumental sinfonietta, in which he explored the rhetorical potential of such outbursts to even greater (and far more passionate) depths.
As the central character Marty, soprano Nadja Michael found just the right balance between the extraordinary nature of that character’s history and the mundanity of the world in which she is now embedded. (Actually, as she discloses her personal history, we realize that every world in which she had been embedded was just as mundane.) Indeed, Michael had a keen sense of how her role could devolve the passionate into the ludicrous; and, as her character reveals more and more about her past, Michael’s delivery became more and more compelling to lure us into the entire backstory. This was particularly striking in a context in which just about every other vocalist managed to keep his/her performance in check to make sure that none of the other roles ever rises above the mundane as Marty’s does.
The bottom line is that this is an opera that goes against just about every expectation that opera-lovers tend to bring to the performances they attend. However, all parties involved, director, conductor, and every performer on the stage, joined forces to replace those thwarted expectations with a highly stimulating “alternative worldview.” There will be only four more performances of The Makropulos Affair, but this may well be the production of the current season that really should not be missed.