Opera Warhorses

An appreciation and analysis of the 'Standard Repertory' of opera

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Review: Nadja Michael’s Arresting Performance in “Makropulos Case” – San Francisco Opera, October 14, 2016

October 16th, 2016

For her long-awaited return to the War Memorial Opera House, German soprano Nadja Michael takes on the role of Emilia Marty, the mysterious lead character in Janacek’s “The Makropulos Case”.

Effectively performed, the role of Emilia Marty can be a supreme achievement for a prima donna with a dramatic soprano voice and consummate acting skills. Michael’s performance was astonishing, projecting the emotions of a woman who has become bored by her long existence, yet is determined to prolong it.

[Below: Nadja Michael as Emilia Marty in the 2016 Olivier Tambosi production of Janacek’s “The Makropulos Case”; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


The opera, derived from a 1922 play of the same name by Czech science fiction writer Karel Capek (whose previous play “R.U.R.” introduced the word “robot” to the world’s languages), centers on the last few days of of a 337-year old temptress, desperately seeking the formula of the potion that had extended her life for centuries.

[Below: Emilia Marty (Nadja Michael) in the clown attire designed by Frank Philipp  Schlössmann; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Few operas provide the opportunity for a singer to dominate the performance.

A former mezzo-soprano, she has an astonishing vocal range and power voice. Clothed in Frank Philipp Schlössmann’s sophisticated costumes and platinum blonde hairstyle, she was an arresting presence in every scene. Michael as Emilia Marty seemed not to be an performer, but the actual Emilia Marty.

Michael’s  2010 San Francisco Opera debut in the title role of Richard Strauss’ “Salome” was one of the resounding successes of the company’s past decade [Nadja Michael a Sensation in Luisotti’s Soaring San Francisco “Salome” – October 18, 2009.] Her “Makropulos Case” is that performance’s equal. Appropriately, she received a spontaneous standing ovation from the War Memorial Opera House audience at opera’s end.

Charles Workman’s Albert Gregor and Stephen Powell’s Baron Jaroslav Prus

The “Makropulos Case’s” drama centers around the sudden appearance of Emilia Marty into the office of a law firm that has for decades handled a long-running dispute between the Gregor and Prus families.

Elina Marty is armed with precise knowledge of ancient documents related to the case, as well as intimate knowledge of the lives of the ancestors of the current protagonists.

[Below: Albert Gregor (Charles Workman, right) is astonished by the presence of Emilia Marty (Nadja Michael, left) and her knowledge of the existence and contents of a sealed document; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Those protagonists are Albert Gregor (effectively performed by Arkansas tenor Charles Workman, who has spent most of his career in Europe) and Baron Jaroslav Prus (sung with distinction by Pennsylvania baritone Stephen Powell).

[Below: A suspicious Baron Prus (Stephen Powell, right) finds himself sexually attracted to the mysterious actress Emilia Marty (Nadja Michael, left); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Other Cast Members and the Musical Performance 

The comprimario roles in “The Makropulos Case” provide some rich opportunities for distinctive characterizations.

These include two veterans of the 2010 performances. New Jersey bass-baritone Dale Travis is Dr Kolenaty (who rattles on about the century plus of milestones in the history of the Gregor-Prus lawsuit). Indiana character tenor Matthew O’Neill is the grizzled Count Hauk-Sendorf, who in his youth had been the lover of a previous manifestation of Emilia Marty, and is quite ready to resume the affair.

[Below: Dr Kolenaty (Dale Travis, right) and Albert Gregor (Charles Workman, left) are amazed at the information provided by Emilia Marty (Nadja Michael, center); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Another significant actor-singer, Ohio character tenor Joel Sorensen was the law clerk Vitek.

The role of Baron Prus’ son Janek, whose unsuccessful amorous pursuit of Marty leads to his suicide, was performed by Brenton Ryan in his San Francisco Opera debut. Ryan is familiar to Los Angeles Opera audiences [see Review: Los Angeles Opera Launches Ambitious New Production of “Ghosts of Versailles” – February 7, 2015] and a 2016 winner of Placido Domingo’s Operalia contest. One expects a major career from this artist. (Ryan’s 2010 predecessor in this production was spinto tenor Brian Jagde, who concurrently will be performing the lead role of Radames in San Francisco Opera’s new production of Verdi’s “Aida”.)

California soprano Julie Adams was Kristina. Latvian mezzo-soprano Zanda Svede performed the roles of the Cleaning Woman and the Chambermaid and Illinois bass-baritone Brad Walker was a Stagehand.

The San Francisco Opera Orchestra, most of whose members had played under the masterful conducting of Maestro Jirí Belohlávek’s “Makropulos Case” in 2010 and many of whom had played under the legendary Sir Charles Mackerras’ “Makropulos Case” in 1993, demonstrated its affection for the score. This year’s conductor was Mikhail Tatarnikov, in his San Francisco Opera debut.

The Olivier Tambosi-Frank Philipp Schlössmann Collaborations

This production of the “Makropulos Case” was created for the San Francisco Opera in 2010 by French director Olivier Tambosi and German designer Frank Philipp  Schlössmann (see Brilliant Belohlavek Conducts Mattila’s Masterful “Makropulos” – San Francisco Opera, November 28, 2010).

[Below: Emilia Marty (Nadja Michael, left center, on bed) is surrounded by Count Hauk-Sendorf (Matthew O’Neill, far left) and, from right to left Kristina (Julie Adams), Dr Kolenaty (Dale Travis), Vitek (Joel Sorensen), Baron Prus (Stephen Powell) and Albert Gregor (Charles Workman); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


An obvious favorite production team of former San Francisco Opera General Director David Gockley, who retired this last midsummer, Tambosi and  Schlössmann created four of the productions seen during the Gockley era.

The company imported three of the team’s other famous productions – two additional opportunities to exhibit the dramatic skills of Finnish dramatic soprano Karita Mattila – Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut” (World Class “Manon Lescaut” – S. F. Opera November 19, 2006 ) and Janacek’s “Jenufa” (Review: A Beautifully Performed “Jenufa” by Byström, Mattila and Burden, San Francisco Opera, June 19, 2016), as well as Verdi’s “Falstaff” for baritone Bryn Terfel (Bryn Terfel Triumphs in an Authoritative “Falstaff” – San Francisco Opera, October 9, 2013).

(Note that the large wall clocks that are such a striking feature of each of the “Makropulos” production’s scenes always give the current audience time, confirming that the dress rehearsal in which photographer Cory Weaver took the impressive production photos seen here took place in the afternoon.)


I recommend this opera, cast and production for the veteran opera-goer as well as the newcomer to opera – each of whom should find this melody-drenched opera with Nadja Michael’s stunning Emilia Marty to be a memorable theatrical experience.

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