The Makropulos Affair (opera)
The Makropulos Affair (or The Makropoulos Case, or The Makropulos Secret or, literally, The Makropulos Thing; Czech Věc Makropulos) is a three-act opera by Czech composer Leoš Janáček. The libretto, based on a play of the same name by Karel Čapek, was written by the composer between 1923 and 1925.
The Makropulos Affair was his penultimate opera and, like much of his later work, it was inspired by his infatuation with Kamila Stösslová, a married woman much younger than himself.
Janáček's operatic version was written between 1923 and 1925. He had seen the play early in its run in Prague on 10 December 1922, and immediately saw its potential. He entered into a correspondence with Čapek, who was accommodating towards the idea, although legal problems in securing the rights to the play delayed work. When these problems were cleared on 10 September 1923, Janáček began work on the opera straight away. He wrote the libretto himself, and by December 1924 had completed the first draft of the work. He spent another year refining the score, before completing it on 3 December 1925.
Musically, much of the piece has little in the way of thematic development, instead presenting the listener with a mass of different motifs and ideas. Janáček's writings indicate that this was a deliberate ploy to give musical embodiment to the disruptive, unsettling main character Emilia Marty/Elina Makropulos. Only at the end of the final act, when Makropulos' vulnerability is revealed, does the music tap into and develop the rich lyrical vein that has driven it throughout.
It is often argued that Emilia Marty, like the other female heroes in Janáček's later operas, stands for one of the aspects of Kamila Stösslová, the woman with whom he was in love for the last decade of his life. Marty, with a clever and manipulative exterior hiding a core of vulnerability, is a 'snapshot' of Stösslová, like the coquettish and shy Cunning Little Vixen and the tragic Káťa Kabanová.
Two years after its premiere, the opera was given in Prague, and also in Germany in 1929, but it did not become really popular until a production by the Sadler's Wells company in London in 1964. While performed with some regularity, it has not become part of the core opera repertory in the same way as have Jenůfa, Káťa Kabanová or The Cunning Little Vixen.
In 1966, the San Francisco Opera gave the first performances (in an English translation) of the opera in the U.S. with Marie Collier in the lead role. Other notable sopranos who have performed the opera include Anja Silja, Maralin Niska (in Frank Corsaro's production), Karan Armstrong, Jessye Norman, Elisabeth Söderström, Catherine Malfitano, and Karita Mattila.
On January 5, 1996 the opening night of a Metropolitan Opera production ended prematurely only a few minutes into Act 1 when tenor Richard Versalle, 63, suffered a heart attack while climbing the 20-foot ladder which was part of the set, fell, and died on stage immediately after singing Vitek's line: "Too bad you can only live so long".
|Role||Voice type||Premiere cast, December 18, 1926
(Conductor: František Neumann)
|Emilia Marty, formerly Elina Makropulos, a celebrated singer||soprano||Alexandra Čvanová|
|Albert Gregor||tenor||Emil Olšovský|
|Dr Kolenatý, a lawyer||bass-baritone||Ferdinand Pour|
|Vítek, Kolenatý's clerk||tenor||Valentin Šindler|
|Kristina, his daughter, a young singer||soprano||Jožka Mattesová|
|Baron Jaroslav Prus||baritone||Zdeněk Otava|
|Janek, his son||tenor||Antonín Pelc|
|Count Hauk-Šendorf||tenor||Václav Šindler|
|a Stage Technician||baritone||Jaroslav Čihák|
|a Cleaning Woman||alto||Jelena Ježičová|
|Offstage male chorus|
Kolenatý's law office, Prague, 1922
Vitek, Kolenatý's clerk, notes that the probate case of Gregor v. Prus has been going on for almost a century. Kolenatý represents the middle-class Gregors against the wealthy and aristocratic Prus family. Albert Gregor comes in asking about the case, Kolenatý has taken it to the Supreme Court, but has not returned because he is expecting the final resolution. Vitek's daughter Kristina, enters. She is a young singer, and praises Emilia Marty, a famous singer she has seen rehearsing and admits that she will never be the artist Emilia Marty is.
Kolenatý returns, accompanied (surprisingly) by Emilia Marty, who reviews the case with her. Baron Joseph Ferdinand Prus died in 1827, leaving no will or legitimate children. His cousin claimed the estate, but so did Albert's ancestor, Ferdinand Gregor, who asserted that the Baron had promised the estate to him both presenting different evidence to their case but no actual will. Here Emilia interrupts. Speaking with unusual familiarity of these long-ago events, she states that Ferdinand Gregor was the illegitimate son of Baron Joseph (who was a very centered and diligent man, contradicting Dr. Kolenatý's description of the man) and opera singer Ellian MacGregor. Kolenatý says that the case seems to be on the side of the Prus family, because there is no will. Emilia asks what would be required for Albert Gregor to win, and Kolenatý says the missing will. Emilia says that there is in fact a will and proceeds to describe an old cupboard in the Prus mansion where important papers were kept where he will find the document they need.
Kolenatý thinks Emilia is making up stories, but Albert insists he investigate at once and even threatens to take the case to a rival lawyer. Kolenatý leaves, and Albert tells Emilia that if he does not get the estate, he will be penniless and shoot himself. He is already infatuated with Emilia, and tries to make love to her. But Emilia, bored and indifferent, coldly refuses him. However, she asks his help in retrieving a document that will be found with the will.
Kolenatý returns with Jaroslav Prus. They found the will where Emilia said it would be, and Jaroslav congratulates Albert on his victory - if he can prove that Ferdinand Gregor was the Baron's illegitimate son. Emilia says she can prove that.
The empty stage of the opera house
A stagehand and a cleaning woman discuss Emilia's extraordinary performance. Jaroslav enters, seeking Emilia, accompanied by his young son Janek, and Kristina.
Emilia enters, but spurns them all, including Janek, who falls under her spell, and Albert, who brings her expensive flowers. Old (and by now senile) Count Hauk-Šendorf enters, and thinks he recognizes Emilia as Eugenia Montez, a Romani woman with whom he had an affair in Andalusia half a century before. Emilia tells him Eugenia is not dead, and in Spanish, calls him by a pet name and asks him for a kiss.
All except Jaroslav leave. He demands an explanation of her strange interest in his family, and reveals that the mother of the Baron's child was recorded as "Elina Makropulos" - who might be the same as "Ellian MacGregor", whose love letters he has read, Prus describes her as a passionate woman with probably flexible morals, to which Emilia takes an offense. He continues saying that only a descendant of "Ferdinand Makropoulos" can claim the estate. Emilia offers to buy a mysterious document found with the will, but Jaroslav refuses and leaves. Albert returns and again pleads his love, but Emilia merely falls asleep, and Albert leaves. Janek returns, and Emilia asks him to get the document for her. Jaroslav overhears this, and orders Janek to leave, then agrees to provide the document himself if Emilia will spend the night with him.
Emila's hotel room the next morning
Emilia and Jaroslav have spent the night together. Though Jaroslav was disappointed by Emilia's coldness, he gives her the envelope containing the document. They are informed that Janek has committed suicide due to his infatuation with Emilia. Jaroslav grieves, but Emilia is absolutely indifferent. Jaroslav hardly has time to express his anger at her reaction before Count Hauk-Šendorf enters, he has left his wife and plans to elope with Emilia to Spain. Albert, Kolenatý, and Kristina enter, with a doctor who takes Count Hauk-Šendorf away. Kolenatý has noticed that Emilia's handwriting matches that of "Ellian MacGregor", and suspects her of forgery. She leaves the room to get dressed and after she has had her breakfast, she will clarify everything.
The rest of the party begins to search her papers and belongings. The searchers find many documents and keepsakes, all bearing names with the initials "E.M.", Jaroslav says that the handwriting of "Elina Makropulos" (on Ferdinand's birth certificate) also matches that of Emilia.
Emilia comes back, drunk and with a pistol, but Albert disarms her. Emilia at last decides to tell the truth: she is Elina Makropulos, born in 1585, daughter of Hieronymus Makropulos, an alchemist in Emperor Rudolf II's Court, who ordered him to prepare a potion that would extend his life, when it was ready, the Emperor ordered his alchemist to test it on her. She fell into a coma and Hieronymus was sent to prison. After a week Elina woke up and fled with the formula and now she has lived for three centuries on an itinerant life, becoming one of the best singers of all time. To conceal her longevity, she has assumed many identities: Eugenia Montez, Ekaterina Myshkin, Ellian McGregor, and others. She confided her secret to Baron Joseph and gave him the formula, which he attached to his will for his son.
The potion is finally wearing off. Elina wanted the formula to gain another 300 years of life. As the potion wears off and the first signs of old age appear on her face, they come to believe her. Elina has realized that perpetual youth has led her to exhausted apathy, and resolves to allow death to come naturally to her, understanding that a sense of transcendence and purpose come from a naturally short span of life. Aging rapidly before the eyes of the astonished onlookers, she offers Kristina the formula so she now can become a great artist herself, but she burns it in a candle flame. Elina expires as she recites the first words of the Lord's Prayer in Greek.
References in literature
The Makropulos Case forms the center of a classic article by Bernard Williams, in which he argues that a person never has reason to live an immortal life. The novel is referenced in the details and title of Matthew Gallaway's novel The Metropolis Case (2010).
- Holloway, Lynette (7 January 1996). "Richard Versalle, 63, Met Tenor, Dies After Fall in a Performance". New York Times. Retrieved 29 November 2008.
- Bernard Williams, "The Makropulos Case: Reflections on the Tedium of Immortality", Problems of the Self, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973.
- Freeman, John W. Synopsis of The Makropulos Case
- Holden, Amanda (Ed.), The New Penguin Opera Guide, New York: Penguin Putnam, 2001. ISBN 0-14-029312-4
- Programme for English National Opera's performances of The Makropoulos Affair, May 2006
- Tyrrell, John. Janáček's Operas, A Documentary Account, Faber and Faber, 1992, ISBN 0-571-15129-9, Ch. 8 (p. 304-325)