Monday, November 07, 2016
Time, Alchemy and The Makropulos Case
My late mother was driving us along the Southern California coast between Oxnard and Ventura when she mentioned that she was starting to see everything through transparent layers of time: familiar landscapes, buildings, people and even herself at different stages of life as a child, young woman, mother, and elderly person. "It's like I can see the past and present, together, at the same time. It's a strange, unexpected way of looking at the world."
Lately I have been experiencing the same sensation, particularly in places like the Hayes Valley neighborhood which has undergone such rapid transformation over the last 20 years, from freeway removal to the building of thousands of expensive new housing units.
Having lunch in the backyard of Arlequin a couple of Sundays ago with an old friend, Chris Okon, thoughts of earlier incarnations of the restaurant, the neighborhood, and my decades-old friend felt like dining on a rich, yet transparent stew.
The interplay between nostalgia and the current moment was even more emphasized by going to the San Francisco Opera for a matinee performance of The Makropulos Case, Janacek's opera about a 337-year-old woman kept alive by an alchemical elixir. The New Yorker magazine music critic Alex Ross above was the informative pre-show lecturer and confessed to finding Janacek's music difficult to enjoy at first, "a little barren and underscored," but that once he caught the sound and the spirit, the composer's music became a favorite.
Janacek fans have been unusually blessed this year with perfectly cast performances of Jenufa in the summer at the SF Opera and a musically ambitious production of The Cunning Little Vixen from West Edge Opera at the Oakland Train Station, finishing off with this SF Opera fall season revival of The Makropulos Case in an Olivier Tambosi production from six years ago. (Pictured above are SF Opera publicist Jeff McMillan and West Edge Opera board member James Parr.)
Though the production was very good in every respect on the Sunday, October 23rd matinee, it was defeated for me by time and alchemy. The production six years ago starred Karita Mattila in one of the most astonishing performances I have ever seen on a stage: world-weary and filled with icy contempt one moment, enchantingly seductive the next moment, and borderline narcoleptic when bored. She would change moods with hairpin velocity, and the audience was taken for quite a ride before she decided to forego the magic formula and revel in mortality. The German soprano Nadja Michael was much better than expected replacing Mattila, directed in much the same blocking by director Tambosi. The performance didn't have quite the precision of her predecessor and her strong voice was less beautiful which wasn't a problem until the final aria where Mattila once took us to heaven.
Live theater is all about alchemy, and there is probably no better demonstration of that mystery than these two versions of the same production six years apart. Conductor Mikhail Tatarnikov led the orchestra in a fine performance of the spiky, conversational score, but six years ago the conductor was Czech master Jiří Bělohlávek, who also led the Jenufa this summer, and he was missed. The supporting cast was good this year, but there was no alchemy between them and Nadja Michael, and for an adaptation of a talky play by Karel Čapek, a dollop of magic is required. (The photo above is of the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism students who had just spent a week being mentored by professional music critics at the SF Conservatory all week.)
Still, I am glad anytime the San Francisco Opera produces a Janacek opera and they should be commended because he's a hard sell for a lot of audiences. The company usually does themselves proud with his work, and they did so again last month. This month SF Opera is producing a new production of Verdi's Aida and a revival of Madama Butterfly, which I probably won't be seeing, but have been reading good things about both productions (especially the soprano in Butterfly). (Pictured above are Linda and Stephen, two music lovers with Sunday matinee box seat subscriptions.)