Sunday, April 29, 2012

Vec Makropulos at the Met

Karita Mattila made her long-awaited Met appearance Friday night as Emilia Marty, the 337 year old protagonist of Janacek's penultimate opera, and the powerful logic of Mattila in this role was again clear to all. Mind you, that's not to say that Mattila's interpretation is the obvious one or likely to bear much similarity to other readings of the part. In fact, her Marty may be a bit of an acquired taste. As is her wont, she eschews traditional operatic acting in favor of a sort of hypernaturalistic style through which she seeks to convey the raw flesh and blood concerns of her characters.

And so in her Marty we do not get the supernatural ice queen hovering above petty human concerns, but a personality disintegrating before our very eyes, a jumble of impulses and memories, a human vessel collapsing under the weight of its own experience. Marty's line "I haven't been a lady for quite some time" is almost a pathetic statement here--peel back the layers of history and this Marty turns out to be a sad, bewildered creature suffering through life without any of the wisdom she may have once acquired. In the absence of the understanding death imparts to our lives, her capacity to make sense of the world has disintegrated and left her horribly adrift. Mattila's special capabilities as a physical performer powerfully telegraph this restless, thoroughly alien presence, while her vocal performance captures Marty's schizophrenic careening from casual cruelty and vulgarity to kittenish seduction, to the weary, soaring lines of the final scene, the finale an exquisite fit for Mattila's plaintive upper register.

That said, this was perhaps not as straightforward a triumph as last year’s assumption in San Francisco. Mattila sounded less comfortable vocally here than she did in the previous outing, with those beautiful blooming lines marred by an occasional wavering about the pitch and a middle register that was sometimes strained early in the night. The biggest damper, however, was undoubtedly the cluttered, unfocused production which is badly showing its age more than 15 years later.

The actual staging, for which the original director, Elijah Moshinsky, returned, was solid enough, with Mattila largely importing the role as she developed it in San Francisco as the centerpiece, but the production is something of a mess. I can see how this probably seemed like an admirably minimal fit for the show in 1996, but today it feels played out. A huge billboard of a mysterious woman's face lurks in the back of the largely bare stage throughout the show to convey, I dunno, that Marty is watching us? The interiors of the office and hotel room for the first and third acts are awkward spaces dominated by massive slanted plate glass windows and lit in a wan, shadowy fashion that plops them into that uncanny valley of set design where, without any greater purpose, one can never quite reconcile the poor attempt at simulating a real space.

The huge sphinx thing which dominates act II (apparently this time around La Marty is engaged for a run of Aida's, as opposed to the memorable clown get-up from SF which had her in Pagiliacci?) was designed, so I'm told, so that Jessye Norman would have a good spot to park herself for the duration, and it adds an intriguing, creepy character despite forcing some awkward staging. There is a big effect at the end that works pretty well, but at the cost of forcing KM to perform the bulk of the great climactic finale shunted to the front of the proscenium for no apparent reason. Getting the full payoff from Vec Makropulos depends a lot on properly showcasing Janacek's glorious finale--directors must tread carefully with anything that detracts from it, and this production fails to obey that rule.

A strong supporting cast included Richard Leech as an agitated, explosive Gregor, the dissolute hopeful in the estate case whose passion for Marty is particularly problematic given that he is her great grandson. Also notable were the intimidating Prus offered by John Reuter and a Kristina of disarming seriousness from Emalie Savoy.

Jiri Belohlavek continues his dominance of big-time American Janacek revivals in the pit with this production. This is a severely unsentimental reading of this fairly unsentimental opera--Belohlavek supports the talkiness of the score with a raw, choppy energy, driving Janacek's dense textures with abandon.


Blogger Will said...

I love everything Janacek. I'm seeing this revival on Saturday afternoon and can't wait.

6:31 PM  
Blogger Alex said...

Enjoy! Funny that it feels like the must see of the Spring given there's like, a new Ring on. But that says something I guess...

12:31 AM  
Blogger Will said...

Oh -- might the clown get-up in SF have been for a production of Lulu? Now, that would be an interesting concept!

8:27 AM  
Blogger Will said...

OK, I saw and I was riveted by it. There was some fog in Mattila's voice in act one but by the middle of act two there was a bright gleam and the finale blazed; not sure how it sounded over the radio, of course, but I am not a fan of the MET's ultra-close microphone placements.

As you panted doubts about the sphinx, I made sure to pay a lot of attention to it in relation to to E.M. Mattila uses it very differently than did Malfitano (a performance I liked) and vastly more dynamically than Jessye, of course. It may be a useful symbol: sphinx as enigma (also occurring in Des Grieux's apostrophe to Manon in the repertory this season), sphinx as symbol, of eternity (Egyptian), sphinx as deceiver and destroyer (Oedipus myth). It may well have been devised to give Jessye a safe place to retreat, but I don't find it totally irrelevant to the subject at hand.

8:48 AM  
Blogger Alex said...

Oh man, KM sounded fantastic over the radio, let me tell you, and I'm sure even better in the house. Was also blown away by that completely exquisite finale--this is sure to be a great Sirius attraction in years to come. If there was anything to my quibbles on opening night, perhaps just goes to show that premieres aren't always optimal. Likewise with the orchestra--sounded pretty great in the bcast though there was a lot of talk about fatigue for the opening.

For the record, I'm not anti-Sphinx, indeed I thought it was the one choice set-wise that really contributed to the overall mood. As for the mobility, will admit that is partially motivated by memories of what KM did when allowed to run free in SF aka "the calisthenics routine of the damned."

Love the idea that Marty is the leading exponent of Lulu...she's all "finally, after at least 200 years, a part I can really get into." In general, we thought it would be a fun gimmick to switch up the set revealed in Act II based on whatever is backstage at the Met at the time. Methinks KM would have a ball suggestively draping herself over the planks of the Machine...

9:48 AM  
Blogger Will said...

What a great idea, although Marty, versatile as she is, might have a bit of a problem with Billy Budd or Dialogues des Carmelites!

On the other hand, if we assume that Sphinx is from Antony and Cleopatra . . . .

11:58 AM  
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