The mighty Met often does most with the operas its conservative audience likes least. And so it was on Friday with The Makropulos Case.
Janácek’s dark fantasy, written in 1926 and based on Karel Capek’s surreal play, was first presented here in 1996. With Jessye Norman miscast as the almost-eternal protagonist whose life spans more than three centuries, success was muted. Matters improved in 1998 when the magnetic Catherine Malfitano took over. Still, the masses resisted the composer’s erotic-neurotic spell. Elijah Moshinsky’s moody production mustered only 13 performances in 16 years.
The current revival is taut, smart and stylish. Jirí Belohlávek conducts with equal concern for sweeping passion and subtle inflection. Moshinsky has returned to refine his fanciful narrative, and, most important, to accommodate a distinctly different heroine, the Finnish diva Karita Mattila.
Statuesque and hyper-blonde, she models modest costumes unlike the flamboyant gowns of her predecessors. She bestrides the stage with cheerful grandiosity, exudes sexy excess and swaggers ferociously. She sings with silken purity that masks dynamic thrust. As with her celebrated Salome, she exerts magnetism at every tasteless turn. Like her or not, she earns her ovations.
Still, she does little to court sympathy for the bizarre time-defying quasi-heroine. Tough and haughty, often vulgar, her Emilia Marty suggests a touch of Marilyn Monroe here and, worse, a trace of Mae West there. Other sopranos – Marie Collier, Elisabeth Söderström and Hildegard Behrens spring to mind – have conveyed the character’s ultimate allure with a modicum of wit and an aura of innocent dignity. With Mattila, however, less cannot be more. There never is less.
The Met has surrounded its assertive protagonist with an ensemble of refined singing actors. Richard Leech (replacing Kurt Streit) whines heroically as Albert Gregor. Johan Reuter broods stoically as Jaroslav Prus. Tom Fox schemes wisely as Dr Kolenaty. Alan Oke grumbles neatly as Vitek. Bernard Fitch slights the pathos of old Hauk-Sendorf , but at least avoids caricature. Even in Mattila’s shadow, they make this an interesting case.