Review: ‘The Makropulos Case’ at San Francisco Opera (***)

by Charles Kruger

This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)
This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

This year, San Francisco opera fans have had the rare opportunity to see not one, but two operas by the Czek genius Leoš Janáĉek. At the beginning of summer, SFO gave us a spectacular production of “Jenůfa.” That opera has been called “perfect” by some critics, and it arguably is.

“The Makropulos Case” is wonderful as well. While not a sublime masterpiece like “Jenůfa” it has many wonderful qualities. For one thing, the libretto is a marvelously enchanting story of the supernatural, but without spookiness. Like a sophisticated modern horror story it begins with the most mundane of circumstances — a legal battle. Set in the book lined offices of a distingushed barrister, it starts off stodgy and pedestrian. That is, until a local opera star appears on the scene to express a curious interest in “The Makropulos Case.”

As the mysterious star, Emlia Marty, soprano Nadja Michael is superb as singer and actress. The role is written in the distinctly conversational tone that is a hallmark of Janáĉek’s style, and Michael captures this feeling perfectly. Her physical presence is also deliciously disturbing, as she combines innocence and world-weariness, sexual predation and vulnerability, cruelty and kindness, openness and secretiveness.

Nadja Michael as Emilia Marty in Janáček's "The Makropulos Case" at SF Opera. Photo Credit: Cory WEaver.
Nadja Michael as Emilia Marty in Janáček’s “The Makropulos Case” at SF Opera. Photo Credit: Cory WEaver.

The tantalizing and alluring Marty does indeed hold an astonishing secret, one that takes the entire opera to fully uncover. Janáĉek’s libretto is genuinely suspenseful, and audiences should enjoy its mystery. Those familiar with the story can happily suspend their disbelief, and experience it anew.

While the entire company sings and acts with excellence, the real star of this production is the orchestra, under the baton of Russian conductor, Mikhail Tatarnikov, making his San Francisco debut. The music is continuous and all enveloping, moving at a consistently rapid pace, carrying the audience tumultuously forward through the story. Few opera composers use the orchestra as masterfully as Janáĉek, who achieves a startling balance between voices and instruments, and Tatarnikov brings out every nuance of the wonderful score.

Bass baritone Albert Gregor is superb as a wronged man seeking to win a complicated law case, and Dale Travis is intriguing and convincing as his lawyer, Dr. Kolantý. As the story unfolds, we gradually learn that the mysterious Marty (remember her?) has an uncanny connection to the case. As Count Hauk-Šendorf, Matthew O’Neil provides superb comic relief and some key information about the mystery.

Although less than the grandest of operas, “The Makropulos Case” is singularly entertaining and strikingly unusual, with an exceptionally satisfying orchestral component. It offers a lot to enjoy.

“The Makropulos Case” continues at the War Memorial Opera House through October 29, 2016. For further information, click here.

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Rating: ***
(For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here)

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“The Makropulos Case,” music and libretto by Leoš Janáĉek, co-produced by San Francisco Opera and Finnish National Opera. Director: Olivier Tambosi. Conductor: Mikhail Tatarnikov. Production Designer: Frank Philipp Schlössman. Lighting Designer: Duane Schuler. Chorus Director: Ian Robertson. 

Cast:

Emilia Marty: Nadja Michael. Albert Gregor: Charles Workman. Baron Jaroslav Prus: Stephen Powell. Dr. Kolantý: Dale Travis. Vitek: Joel Sorensen. Kristina: Julie Adams. Count Hauk-Sendorf: Matthew O’Neill. Janek: Brenton Ryan. A Cleaning Woman: Zanda Ŝvēde. A Chambermaid: Zanda Ŝvēde. A Stagehand: Brad Walker. 

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