By Rebecca Schmid
BERLIN – Of all the femmes fatales in opera history, Emilia Marty, the protagonist in Janáček’s The Makropulos Case, has had the most lives. “Eugenia Montez, Elisa Müller, Elian MacGregor, Ekaterina Myshkin,” begins the interrogation of the lawyer Dr. Kolenatý in the final act. Having ingested a potion which grants her 300 years of life, Marty has even more male victims than Lulu. What is more, she has seduced from the opera stage itself, perfecting her vocal technique over the centuries.
A new production by David Hermann at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, premiered Feb.19, visualizes the story with a series of extras, or Doppelgängers. Starting at the end of the second act, Marty is trailed by five red-heads, who in the final tableau lie down on stretchers and eat pieces of paper representing the document the eternal diva needs to prolong her lifespan another 300 years. As they die, she steps into the opening scene of this very Makropulos Case production, a stage within a stage, where yet another Doppelgänger sits on a table in undergarments. (The sets and costumes are by Christof Hetzer.)
While the staging helps illustrate the backstory of this complex drama, the action is ultimately so busy that it distracts from Janácek’s intricate, restless score. Given the music’s layers of narrative, it seemed extraneous to have Marty sing to a boy version of Albert Gregor – the plaintiff in a legal dispute over the estate of Baron Joseph Ferdinand Prus, and the son of Elian MacGregor – in the opening act. And it remains a mystery why the child actor lay twitching under a table during the Act I Prelude.
The entourage of Marty’s past lives proves more elegant with a dance number in Act II, just before an enamored but disgusted Gregor announces his urge to kill Marty. But representing the eternal diva in a series of different human forms, all of which are the same person, in fact undermines the psychological complexity of the storyline. Having experienced so much of life, Marty cannot care for people anymore. She has no problem seducing Jaroslav Prus in order to get her hands on the Makropulos document, but she has become emotionally barren, carrying within her the scars of so many loves and losses.
Video projections by Martin Eidenberger only underscore the superficial nature of this production: In the opening bars of the Act I Prelude, Marty’s various names flash across a white scrim. With the emergence of her many personas in Act III, the pithy but painfully trite equation “EM=me” flashes behind the diva on the opera stage that will hold her eternally. Such explicit gestures detract from the spiritual quality of Janáček’s opera, in which Marty is ultimately a victim of both human society and the world of art in which she is trapped.
The dramatic soprano Evelyn Herlitzius, in her debut as Marty, was an appropriately callous, estranged presence. Her ability effortlessly to cut above the orchestra also helped reinforce the notion of a siren-like character with supernatural powers. But while her middle range was smooth and rich, her steely manner and strident high notes did not evoke a woman so enchanting that Prus’ son, Janek, commits suicide when his father is the one to get her into the bedroom. While nurturing with Gregor (whom she calls “Bertie”) and ruthless vis-à-vis Prus, her characterization lacked sensuousness.
As Gregor, tenor Ladislav Elgr gave a desperate, heated performance that created so much continuity between his vocal and dramatic interpretation that it was easy to forgive a cracked high note in the first act. The baritone Derek Welton was at once seductive and haughtily aristocratic as Prus. Deutsche Oper Ensemble member Seth Carico brought a virile baritone voice to the role of Dr. Kolenatý, and tenor Robert Gambill, dressed as a sado-masochistic jester in the role of the ex-diplomat Hauk-Šendorf, was appropriately taunting as he chased after his former lover, Eugenia Montez.
Memorable performances came from house ensemble members Jana Kurcová, with sultry tone and immaculate diction, as the young opera singer Krista; Paul Kaufmann, whose penetrating tenor in the role of the clerk Vitek demanded attention in the opening act; and the expressive tenor Gideon Poppe, as Janek.
Music director Donald Runnicles drew a nice Romantic sweep from the orchestra but at the expense of cutting rhythms that drive the drama. While the ensemble improved over the course of the evening, the instrumental lines were more syrupy than taut, detracting from the (at times) bloodcurdling suspense of an opera that, like Emilia Marty, remains timelessly modern.
Additional performances will be given Feb. 25 and 28 and Apr. 27 and 30. For details, click here.
Rebecca Schmid is a music writer based in Berlin. She contributes regularly to the Financial Times, New York Times, Gramophone, Musical America Worldwide, and other publications.