Leos Janacek’s penultimate opera Věc Makropulos premiered in Brno, Moravia (today’s Czech Republic) in 1926. It has taken almost 90 years for Vienna State Opera to present this unique masterpiece, although it was performed once in Theater an der Wien in 1938 and a few times in Volksoper over the intervening years. It was worth the long wait. A straightforward but elegant production by Peter Stein was the perfect backdrop to showcase the story of a 337-year-old woman Emilia Marty based on a play by Janáček’s fellow countryman Karel Čapek as she makes a last minute effort to recover her father’s secret formula to prolong life only to choose a release in death at the last minute.

The lawyer Dr Kolenatý’s office in Act I was dominated by two sets of towering bookcases filled with legal documents, placed at an angle. Simple office furniture completed the setting for the discussion of a century-long inheritance dispute, Gregor vs. Prus. Act II moved the action to the stage of an opera house, modeled after the Vienna State Opera, where Emilia Marty just sang an enthusiastically received performance. Marty’s hotel suite in Act III was furnished in 1920s Art Deco style, with a semi-transparent white curtain separating the sitting area in front from the bedroom in the back. Costumes by Annamaria Heinreich were period specific, simple but often stunning, especially for Marty and Krista, a young singer in love with Prus’ son Janek.

Special credit is also due to lighting by Joachim Barth. In Act I, the brightly lit lawyer’s office suddenly became dimmed as Marty entered the scene, to indicate her out of time existence.  Janáček specified that a pale green light overflow the stage and auditorium at the end of Act III to accompany the ghost-like appearance of Marty. Barth chose to illuminate the bedroom curtain in blue, and only Marty was bathed in pale green. As the Makropulos document burned up in flames and Marty collapsed in death, the entire stage was lit up in red for the final tableau.

Peter Stein took one unconventional liberty in the production. Marty fainted and was carried into the bedroom during the Act III interrogation of her identity. As she reappeared for her last scene assisted by a doctor, she was dressed in a bathrobe wearing a hideous brown mask to signify a 337-year-old. This shocking transformation was quite effective in enhancing our sympathy for her plight and desperation. Krista’s face as she supported Marty registered both disgust and pity, making a convincing case for her choice to burn the secret formula. The last moments of the opera featured the male chorus singing from the sides of the auditorium, not off-stage, thereby enfolding the audience into the drama.

The success of The Makropulos Case hinges on a dramatic soprano with good acting ability as Emilia Marty. Laura Aikin’s performance was a marvelous tour de force both vocally and in her acting. Her voice was strong throughout the demanding range of the role, and opened up thrillingly for high notes. The numerous dialogue scenes were successfully negotiated with nuanced vocal acting, with her seemingly effortless use of vocal color. She was manipulative and yet desperate in Act I, diva-like but weary in Act II, and confident but pathetic in Act III.  

Aikin was surrounded by an ensemble of fine singers with great acting skills. Ludovit Ludha as Albert Gregor and Markus Marquardt as Jaroslav Prus were both impressive in their scenes with Marty, Ludha naively expressing his infatuation for (not knowing) one of his ancestors, and Marquardt seducing Marty in exchange for the desired document.  Margarita Gritskova as Krista made the most of her brief appearances with her darkly warm singing and her arresting presence. The 75-year-old Heinz Zednik was warmly received as Hauk-Šendorf, as was the veteran Wolfgang Bankl as a robust voiced Dr Kolenatý. Thomas Ebenstein as Vítekand Carlos Osuna as Janek made worth contributions.

The orchestral music often dominated the opera, commenting on the scenes and propelling the action. This was most apparent in the dialogue scenes, with the orchestra taking the lead in expressing the inner thoughts of the characters. The Vienna State Opera, led by Rainer Küchl, due to retire soon, was magnificent as they performed under Maestro Hrůša, who led a brisk and yet sensitive and nuanced performance. The strings and brass made especially notable contributions to the tricky prelude that sets the mood for the entire opera with syncopated rhythm and off-stage music, and the poignant final moments of the opera as the music led us to contemplate our own life and mortality.