Janáček’s The Makropulos Case and San Francisco Opera have history. San Francisco presented the opera’s United States première 50 years ago, so this season’s production marks an anniversary. It seems particularly fitting to celebrate the passage of time since this particular work’s debut. After all, the opera itself is about time – the heroine, Elina Makropulos (now going by the name Emilia Marty), has lived 337 years and is searching for the formula that will let her live 300 more. The paper she needs was in the hands of one of her past husbands and is now wrapped up in a 97-year lawsuit between his descendants. As she pursues it, destroying the lives of those around her along the way, she realizes the meaninglessness of her own existence and chooses to reject immortality.

Nadja Michael (Emilia Marty) and Stephen Powell (Baron Jaroslav Prus) © Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera
Nadja Michael (Emilia Marty) and Stephen Powell (Baron Jaroslav Prus)
© Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera

Olivier Tambosi’s stylish production (previously here in 2010) highlights the importance of time. Large, working clocks dominate each scene. They show the current time rather than a metaphorical time or the times referred to in the libretto – a reminder to the audience of our own mortality, and also a handy reference if you’re concerned about missing that post-show dinner reservation. The stage is dominated by a curved wall in cartoonish black-and-white cross-hatching. The costumes are also elegant and monochrome. Elina’s life literally lacks color.

Charles Workman (Albert Gregor) and Nadja Michael (Emilia Marty) © Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera
Charles Workman (Albert Gregor) and Nadja Michael (Emilia Marty)
© Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera
It’s hard to imagine our Elina, Nadja Michael, leading a dull life. Lithe and intense, with spiky blond hair and purposeful gait, she dominates the stage every moment she is on it. She oscillates between tottering weariness and a fiery vivacity, using exaggerated physicality to convey both. Her singing is rich and full with a range of textures – sometimes hollow, sometimes ringing, sometimes whispery. If she occasionally picks power over precision or lets her lines die too quickly, those are flaws that seem to complement her performance rather than detract from it.

Elina often stands out as strange in Makropulos, but here everyone around her is also a bit off-kilter. Shifts of feeling are sudden and gestures are over the top. There’s a sense that Elina’s madness is contagious and that everyone around her loses some of their humanity.

It works, thanks to the commitment of a talented ensemble of singer-actors. Charles Workman sings Albert Gregor with a smooth tenor and a desperate air. Baritone Stephen Powell plays his romantic and legal rival Baron Prus with crisp diction and self-assurance. Matthew O’Neill provides wonderful moments of dark comedy as Count Hauk-Šendorf, an old man who rediscovers his Spanish gypsy lover of years ago in Elina. In the law firm, Joel Sorenson is a warm-voiced Vítek, while Dale Travis makes for a disappointingly underpowered Dr Kolenatý. Julie Adams lends the young opera singer Kristi a bright voice and wide-eyed wonder, and tenor Brenton Ryan is clear-toned and touching as her naïve, ill-fated beau.

Nadja Michael (Emilia Marty) © Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera
Nadja Michael (Emilia Marty)
© Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera

In a production that puts much focus on the dialogue, the only disappointment is that singers are sometimes inaudible. The San Francisco Opera orchestra has a tendency to overpower the voices, particularly the men. Other than that, their playing, under the baton of Mikhail Tatarnikov (in his San Francisco Opera debut), is glorious. Tatarnikov emphasizes the contrasts in the score, bringing out a wide range of colors and dynamics. The sudden bursts of brass and percussion are precise, dramatic, and playful. The overall reading is both sweeping and efficient. Tempos are fast – almost rushed – but the speed of the music matches the frenzy of the story.

The Makropulos Case is a rare opera that combines a complex and beautiful score with an exciting, original plot propelled by good dialogue. The current cast and production in San Francisco show it off to best advantage.