Friday, November 19, 2010

All Things Makropulos 2: Mattila at the SF Opera

The San Francisco Opera has a fairly distinguished track record with the operas of Janacek. In 1966, they gave the U.S. premiere of "The Makropulos Case" with Marie Collier. I saw the revival in 1976 with Anja Silja, and couldn't make heads or tails of the thing. This was before supertitles had been introduced, so the work had been translated into English, though you could barely understand a word. Janacek in English tends to be disastrous because his entire form of composing was based on the natural musicality of speech. At the premiere of "The Makropulos Case" in 1926, he praised cast and conductor but "again and again he returned to the performance of Mrs. Jezicova, who took the quite tiny part of the Cleaning Lady, and in particular to the manner with which she 'spoke' her few words. What he appreciated in it was that her parlando preserved the exact musical notation, but at the same time was completely natural."

In 1980, the company mounted their first Janacek opera in Czech, a production of "Jenufa" with Elizabeth Soderstrom and Sena Jurinac that is still legendary, and then repeated in 1986 with the amazing duo of Gabriela Benackova and Leonie Rysanek. During the Pamela Rosenberg years, there was a "Katya Kabanova" with an exquisite Karita Mattila sabotaged by a dumb regie production, and a "Cunning Little Vixen" with Dawn Upshaw and Thomas Allen that was just about perfection.

In 1993, the great, recently deceased conductor Charles Mackerras (above) joined the company as a principal guest conductor and led "The Makropulos Case" beautifully, but it was in service to a mediocre Lotfi Mansouri production. From the 1950s onwards, Mackerras did as much to usher in the operas of Janacek to the English-speaking world as Max Brod had done in the 1920s for the German-speaking world. In Mackerras' case, though, he was scraping off the encrusted changes and "improvements" of others and restoring Janacek's scores to what the composer wanted in the first place.

A few years ago, San Francisco Opera's General Director David Gockley asked the Finnish superstar diva Karita Mattila if she would be interested in singing Elina Makropulos. She agreed, on the condition that she could work with the conductor Jiri Belohlavek (above), who has taken over the Janacek mantle from Mackerras and who brings a Brno born authenticity to the music besides. Sharing the cost with the Finnish National Opera, this new production premiered last week and it's sensationally good, as confirmed by Brian, Lisa, Charlise, Axel & The Beast.

The opera never made much sense to me before, with its convoluted legal case and men falling at the diva's feet every other minute, but after this production I am officially a convert. Much of the reason can be attributed to Karita Mattila (above), who has had a rough run recently with her "Tosca" at the Metropolitan in a new production trashed by everyone, but this performance is a complete triumph.

Mattila first appeared in San Francisco as a beautiful blonde ingenue with a perfect voice in the late 1980s, singing Mozart and Wagner ("Meistersinger" and "Lohengrin"), then returned for a 2002 "Katya Kabanova" and in Puccini's "Manon Lescaut" a few years ago, a part that seemed all wrong for her even though she could sing it well enough. The ancient, weird and glamorous Ms. Makropulos, however, is so perfect for her age, looks, charisma, acting chops, and vocal abilities that I can't think of anybody else even attempting this role for years after this production. She literally owns it.

I attended the first and third performances, and can report that the production is becoming freer and livelier as it goes along, with the singers playing off of each other brilliantly. Best of all was watching the orchestra musicians leaving through the stage door, beaming with excitement. Along with Mattila, the orchestra and conductor Jiri Belohlavek are the serious stars of this production.

There are only three more performances, and if you live in the Bay Area, you should do everything in your power to try and catch one of them (click here to order).

(All production photos by Cory Weaver courtesy of the SF Opera.)


Brian said...

I still haven't gotten over that Vixen performance with Upshaw. One of my all-time opera going highlights. I'm coming up to SF again Wed just to see Makropulos again. Can't wait.

Civic Center said...

Dear Brian: How cool. The show really is getting better with each performance.

Sibyl said...

So wish I could go again (saw Tuesday's thrilling performance). Makroplous was the first Janacek I saw or heard and I didn't quite get it. I think this is partly because I wasn't ready for his music (now it's among my favorites) and because many times it is put on to showcase a soprano whose acting skills have outlasted her vocal brilliance. It seems like companies feel that because Marty doesn't have huge, soaring lines to sing until that final act, it's okay for the voice to be tattered and torn. That's why I was so enthralled by Mattila: she had all the acting chops, of course, but each sound that came out of her throat was so beautiful it made it easy to understand all those men at her feet. Hell, I would thrown myself there, too, just to hear that final scene again.

Nancy Ewart said...

Amazing post Mike - really really comprehensive and thoughtful. I'm linking to it in my blog because I really like Mattila but Janacek is still not a composer that I understand.

Civic Center said...

Dear sibyl: I was there Tuesday too, and I think you've made a good point about how much greater the opera is when the main role is cast with somebody who can really sing it.

Dear Nancy: Thanks for the link, but you really should go to one of the performances standing room and and go to the top balcony and just experience the music. They even have OperaVision screens up there for the next performances.