This was the afternoon when I returned to the War Memorial Opera House for a second experience of the current revival production of Leoš Janáček’s The Makropulos Affair (Věc Makropulos in Czech, the language of the libretto) by the San Francisco Opera. Only two performances remain, which is a bit of a pity, since this is one of those productions that fires on all cylinders in every sense of that metaphor. This afternoon was my opportunity to divide my attention between the stage and the orchestra pit, since I could not hope for a better view of the conductor and a generous proportion of the instrumental ensemble.
As has already been observed, the production is serving as the SFO debut for Russian Mikhail Tatarnikov. Janáček’s instrumental writing is frequently perplexing, particularly when it involves some kind of narrative element. On more modest scales this is evident even at the level of his chamber music, in which he dwells on not only complex amorous relationships but also the wistful recollection of his own youth (“youth” being the English translation of the title of his wind sextet). On a larger instrumental scale there is his symphonic distillation of Nikolai Gogol’s novella about Taras Bulba into a three-movement composition he called a “rhapsody.” However, the operas constitute a category that rises above the abstraction of narrative in strictly instrumental language; and Janáček’s thoughts about dramatic text were as deep as his thoughts about music. Consequently, as is the case with The Makropulos Affair, he frequently wrote his own librettos.
As has previously been observed, much of the dramatic tension of The Makropulos Affair arises from the deft balancing of the extraordinary with the mundane. However, when one begins to consider what is going on in the orchestra pit, one recognizes another balancing act that is equally impressive. This is the way in which the setting of the text is approached with what amounts to a prose-like delivery in the foreground, while the orchestra is occupied with a prodigious amount of activity all in the interest of establishing a background. Put another way, the orchestra is less concerned with accompanying the vocalists and more with serving as an adjunct to the scenery in establishing the overall setting. This would explain why Janáček should make such extensive use of repetitive structures as a rhetorical device. In acknowledging this compositional technique, the conductor Jiří Bělohlávek suggested that one could find elements of Philip Glass in a Janáček score; but, with due respect to such a capable Janáček interpreter, I would suggest that Steve Reich might be a more appropriate point of reference.
Janáček not only deploys repetitive structures; but also, in his instrumental parts for The Makropulos Affair, the attentive listener is likely to detect a variety of different repetitive structures all churning away simultaneously. Some may share a common pulse but establish different rhythms through varying stress patterns, while others may draw on entirely different pulse frequencies. A conductor who is not aware of the patterns beneath what, on the surface, appears to be what William James liked to call a “blooming, buzzing confusion,” runs the risk of passing that confusion on to the listener. Tatarnikov, on the other hand, knew how to manage the balance of the different sources of those repetitive structures, allowing first one and then another to rise above the underlying texture in which those sources are merely superposed. In other words Tatarnikov took it the duty of the conductor to guide the listener through the many patterns that Janáček has deployed. It was evident in the orchestral introduction that he knew how to do this, and he managed to keep it up for the entire score of the opera while undertaking a similar balancing act with all the vocalists at the same time. Instead of enthusiastic applause (which he definitely received this afternoon), he deserves an Olympic gold medal for a biathlon event!