Is The Makropulos Case a comedy or tragedy? The play by Karel Čapek on which Leos Janáček based his penultimate opera is a “comedy” about a 337-year-old diva, full of sarcastic humour and irony of immortality. Who wants to live forever? The heroine, Emilia Marty, describes a life without an end as dismal and lonely. And yet as she feels herself ageing with the effects of a special potion waning, she seeks to retrieve her father/doctor’s secret formula that she entrusted with a lover of long ago. She thereby gets embroiled in a bitter longstanding inheritance dispute between two families. After a whirlwind of arguments, affairs and accusations, the heroine renounces her immortality and joins the rest of humanity.

Marlis Petersen (Emilia Marty) and dancers
© Monika Rittershaus

Director Claus Guth approaches the work as a tragicomedy at the Staatsoper Berlin. Arresting and surreal images of the heroine’s utter isolation appear at scene changes as Emilia, in a glowing white box spewing white frosty smoke and growling heavy breaths, reaches for a new costume and wig, alternating with banal images of a law office full of filing cabinets, a backstage area of an opera house, and a hotel room in 20th-century Prague. Clerks perform their endless tasks of mundane filing, often with comedic gestures, slow motion movements and dancing, eliciting muted laughter from the audience. Adoring fans repeatedly present flowers to random divas backstage. If Guth’s intention is to remind us of the tedious repetition and ultimate meaningless of our daily routines, his in-your-face approach gets a little tiring after a while. The libretto, as well as Janáček’s discombobulating music, should convey enough of this sense of folly and ultimate joy of our mortal life.

Marlis Petersen (Emilia Marty) and Ludovit Ludha (Albert Gregor)
© Monika Rittershaus

A young girl in 16th-century aristocratic dress appears during the overture and drinks a bottle of the special elixir to signal the beginning of the heroine’s journey. The girl keeps reappearing on stage throughout the opera. A mute figure of an old woman dressed in a simple robe that Marty wears at the beginning is also on stage from time to time, to remind us of how old Marty is. Do we really need their presence on stage to represent Marty’s life journey? Guth's production has some striking images and lighting, but it's cluttered, busy and distracting.

Marlis Petersen (Emilia Marty) and Lara Mohns (Young Marty)
© Monika Rittershaus

Sir Simon Rattle revealed in an interview that the opera is being performed at Staatsoper Berlin for the very first time, and how difficult the initial orchestra rehearsals were as the music is extremely tricky and challenging to play. The excellent players of the Staatskapelle Berlin showed no hint of their unfamiliarity with Janáček's music. They played with such flair and sophistication that one sometimes missed the more edgy and rugged moments. Rattle’s approach was more symphonic than episodic, and that led to a sense of overall unity in the score that is not often apparent. When the last ten minutes or so finally arrived with the clear, ethereal melodies of Marty’s redemption, it was the most natural and inevitable conclusion under Rattle’s leadership, and not an abrupt shift of tone from rugged to lyrical as is often the case. This was insightful and refreshing.

Marlis Petersen (Emilia Marty), Bo Skovhus (Jaroslav Prus), Jan Ježek (Hauk-Šendorf), dancers
© Monika Rittershaus

Marlis Petersen is a versatile and engaging performer with a clean and excellent top and a secure middle voice. She was in her element as the self-centred, cold, calculating yet vulnerable diva manipulating – and being manipulated by – the men around her. It is not easy to sympathise with her character, and Petersen’s interpretation did little to give Emilia any warmth or love for others. She was dead inside almost from the beginning. She was joined by a strong ensemble of singers. Ludovit Ludha as Albert Gregor, Jan Martiník as Dr Kolenatý, and Peter Hoare as Vítek were all sonorous, articulate and dramatic. Bo Skovhus as Prus was a standout as he not only sang with power, vocal colour and nuance, but added depth to this usually callow character. All were impressive in bringing this complicated musical and theatrical work to a successful premiere.