The Makropulos Case returns to Prague’s National Theatre

Gun-Brit Barkmin (Emilia Marty), Gustáv Beláček (dr. Kolenatý), photo: CTK

The opera Věc Makropulos by Czech composer Leoš Janáček, premiered at Prague’s National Theatre on Thursday in a co-production with the English National Opera. In this edition of the Arts, we take a closer look at the opera, known as The Makropulos Case in English, and at its production in Prague.

Gun-Brit Barkmin  (Emilia Marty),  Gustáv Beláček  (dr. Kolenatý),  photo: CTK
Thursday’s premiere of the Makropulos Case by Leoš Janáček at the National Theatre was the last major event of Prague’s opera season this year. In the Czech capital, the production opened two years after it was staged in London, a co-production between the National Theatre in Prague and the English National Opera. Conducted by Tomáš Hanus, a graduate of Brno’s Janáček Academy of Music, the piece stars the German soprano Gun-Brit Barkmin as Emilia Marty, and Italian tenor Ginaluca Zampieri in the leading male role of Albert Gregor.

“Janáček interest me perhaps because of the combination of the colour of my voice, and even the range of my voice, and the way I approach characters. I’m very bound to acting; I cannot see myself singing without acting even at my concerts. My concerts are usually a sort of performances, not very static. And especially with Janáček, this is really necessary.”

Christopher Alden directed the London production by the English National Opera two years ago; he is also in charge of the staging here. He says the inter-war, functionalist setting – the same for the Czech performance - is inspired by the times when the opera was written.

“The world we are showing in this production of Věc Makropulos is set at the time when the piece was written, the world of Prague in the 1920s. We are not bringing it up to a more modern period. It’s such an exciting period in history, and in Czech history, too. What we show the audience is a sort of cold, modern, kind of bank or office world from Prague in the 1920s.”

Unlike Ms Barkmin, who appears on Czech stage for the first time ever, the tenor Gianluca Zapmieri has already performed in the Czech Republic on several occasions. Mr Zampieri explains that Janáček’s score requires singers who are always ready to shine.

“In the Makropulos Case, we need a tenor in a good form, and a very expert tenor, because a little like in Puccini’s Turandot, Janáček wants an immediate effect. He doesn’t allow you any time to arrive, like in late Verdi or other composers of the first half of the 19th century. No; here, sound is necessary and immediate. Either you are there, or you are not. And if you are not, it’s unfortunately a little bit of a disaster.”

Věc Makropulos first premiered in Brno in December 1926. Based on a play by the prominent Czech writer and playwright Karel Čapek, the composer himself adjusted the text for the libretto. But Janáček, who liked the play’s theme of immortality, turned Čapek’s comedy into a dramatic and emotional piece. Director Christropher Alden again.

“Janáček’s operas, not just this one, are always filled with so much fascinating sense of human behaviour and he retained a lot of that in this piece although the Čapek play, which was a kind of intellectual comedy based on a sort of boulevard style. But Janáček turned it into something much deeper and darker and more filled with intense feelings than Čapek’s play; in other words, he turned it into an opera because that’s what opera is.”

The storyline, which follows the mysterious character of Emilia Marty, a 340 year-old diva in possession of the secret to eternal life, was simplified by the composer to fit the needs of an opera. Leading Czech expert on Janáček, Jiří Zahrádka explains.

“He omitted the part where everybody argues about all the things that could be done with immortality; this is an example of Čapek’s somewhat militant schematism which was so alien to Janáček. But the most important thing is the overall understanding of the play. Janáček’s opera, unlike Čapek’s play, is not a comedy; it has a cathartic character.”

The Makropulus Case is the penultimate opera by Leoš Janáček, a native of north Moravia. He finished it in 1925, three years before his death, after a life full of personal suffering. Jiří Zahrádka says that Janáček immediately saw the play’s potential.

“Janáček saw the premiere of the play in the Vinohrady Theatre in 1922, and liked it; he even went to see it again in Brno which is where he probably met Čapek. The question why Janáček picked the play is a difficult one; in his previous opera, Cunning Little Vixen, Janáček often dealt with the issue of finality of human existence, the cyclical character of nature and of human order. I think that in The Makropulos Case, he took a look at immortality from another angle.”

The main character, Emilia Marty, was born in Prague in the 17th century. Her father, an alchemist in the court of the Emperor Rudolf II, discovered the elixir of life, and tried it on his daughter. Director Christopher Alden says her dilemma is loaded with symbolism.

“This woman has been alive for 340 years, she is alive and yet not alive, she was born during the great days of Prague during Rudolf II’s reign. So it’s rather a fascinating picture about what is human life, what is human activity. Is it just about all of the little things that we all dedicate our lives to, our daily little business, or is it about something bigger, something more timeless?”

Until the 1960s, the opera The Makropulos Case was not much staged but it has since become a regular feature of the world’s opera repertory, along with other pieces by Leoš Janáček, such as Jenůfa, Káťa Kabanová and Cunning Little Vixen. For Christopher Alden, Janáček’s music returns to the very fundamentals of the genre.

“Janáček is definitely one of the greatest opera composers who ever lived; to me, he’s one of my top ten favourite opera composers. He accomplished what to me is the great thing about opera: it’s about telling stories through music, it’s about theatre. Over the years, opera has turned into many other things, among them a showcase for fabulous singing. But that’s not what opera was originally supposed to be about, and I feel that like in the beginning of the 20th century, Janáček got back to the place where opera was really starting from, which was theatre through music.”