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In Praise of Older Women

New York
Brooklyn Academy of Music
02/13/2001 -  02/11,15,17/01
Leos Janacek: The Makropulos Case
Anja Silja (Emilia), Linda Tuvas (Kristina), Neil Jenkins (Vitek), Par Lindskog (Albert), Jonathan Veira (Dr. Kolenaty), Steven Page (Prus),Nigel Douglas (Hauk)
New York Virtuoso Singers
Brooklyn Philharmonic
David Atherton (conductor)

Look up the expression “late bloomer” in the dictionary and there will be an angelic face framed in the curly white hair of Leos Janacek staring up at you. At the tender age of sixty he composed his first opera and was always ruminating on the nature of time and the phenomenon of generations (cf. the ending conversation of the forester and the frog from The Cunning Little Vixen). Janacek was extremely energetic in his golden years, romancing ardently a woman 38 years his junior and composing his ”Intimate Letters” string quartet to immortalize their passion. It was natural for him to be attracted to the story of Amelia Marti, a 300-year-old beauty who is desirous of going around again. She is the creation of fantasy writer Carel Kapek, most notable for the creation of the concept and term “robot”. Enamored of all things Slavic, the organ master from Brno fashioned an opera on the classic Makropulos story (neither “case” or “affair” really expresses the original Czech, a more literal translation being “something unique or unusual”) which mimics the vocal contra orchestral style of Mussourgsky and leads to a score almost devoid of singable melody. Unlike his other mature works (which include the entire operatic output), this particular evening for the stage has always been considered a “problem play”, difficult to pull off lyrically although rather exciting dramatically. It was thus with great curiosity that many New Yorkers braved the journey across the river to Brooklyn to experience this rare Glyndebourne production first hand.

The last time this opera was performed in New York the gentleman playing Vitek fell off of a ladder to his death, right after delivering the line “ah well, nothing lasts forever”. Although none of us expected this production to top that, we were all hopeful of an exiting evening at the theater. Rather prudently, this production had no ladder but did feature the illusion of thousands of dusty volumes piled to the ceiling, giving the feel of the Orson Welles version of The Trial (there is a lot of Kafka in Capek). The set was minimalist but effective, the use of shadow most apt for a play in the vampire style.

All of the cast members were excellent character actors and sang the difficult Czech passages with as much melodiousness as this thorny score would allow. I was particularly impressed with the idiot Hauk of Nigel Douglas, a yurodivy straight out of Boris. But the night belonged exclusively to Anja Silja, her entrance hidden behind a newspaper eventually revealing a femme fatale dressed liked Dietrich but with the personality of Garbo. Radiant throughout, she was positively aglow when dressed in the bejeweled full sun headdress of an Aztec princess. Partly the role, of course, but no one could take their eyes off of her as she ravished her vocal line with the most powerful sense of ennui. If Joseph K. had looked like this, maybe some of his troubles would have melted away.

The opera house at BAM is known for its innovative productions (I saw my first Lulu there back in the early 1960’s). The Brooklyn Philharmonic played adequately, albeit with a quite tinny sound. The audience, filled with celebrities from the Big Island, was happy with the experience, although we were all a little sad that Emilia chooses death at the end. She looked pretty damned good for a
girl of 300.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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