Monday, July 23, 2012

Věc Makropulos – Salzburg 2011 (Part 1: The 337-year-old Diva)

I worked in a record store (remember record stores?) during the time Charles Mackerras recorded all the Janáček operas for Decca. Frankly, at that time what I heard did not do much for me.
Janáček ’s music has one foot in the 19th and the other in the 20th century; it’s sometimes hard to figure out what he is up to. One characteristic of Janáček ’s vocal music is his focus on replicating Czech speech patterns.  This is a good word-setting policy in general (IMHO as a part-time composer), and if you speak Czech, I am sure it makes the text easier to follow.

Recently I found all three acts (in separate files) of Věc Makropulos (literally, The Makropolous Thing but usually translated as The Makropolous Affair or The Makropolous Case) on YouTube. What a great way to sample an unfamiliar work! This performance was recorded at the Großes Festspielhaus Salzburg in 2011, and it is available on DVD. The downside of watching this YouTube version (instead of borrowing, renting, or buying it) is that it naturally is sung in Czech, and has German subtitles.
Trying to instant-translate the subtitles (with German III skills) and simultaneously absorb the visuals, I think I sprained my brain; consequently, I didn’t notice much about the music the first time around. While the music fits the text well, it’s a very talky libretto with no real set pieces, except for the final scene and aria. However, the entire opera is only 90 minutes long; and it really repays repeated viewings/hearings. I got a lot more out of it the second time around.
Emilia Marty, the opera diva at the center of Janácek’s opera, is looking for the formula for eternal life. The formula is somehow involved in a 100 year-old legal battle. Emilia shows up as the legal battle is about to come to a close, seemingly for no apparent reason; and she is surprisingly familiar with long-ago events surrounding the case.  In the course of the opera, we learn that Emilia is 337 years old and is in fact rather bored with living so long—constantly reinventing herself and finding a new life and lover (but always as a singer of unnatural beauty).
The plot is thick, so I will not try to summarize all of it here. The Metropolitan Opera site has a good synopsis
In my next post, I will share a bit more about the disadvantages of living for 300 years. Meanwhile, here is the overture. It is a good opportunity to get a look at the stage layout.  

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