The Makropoulos Thingummy

The title of Leoš Janáček’s penultimate opera, Věc Makropulos, has proved a bit difficult to translate. It literally means The Makropulos Thing, but, rather understandably, that hasn’t quite caught on, while alternatives such as The Makropulos Affair or The Makropulos Case aren’t entirely satisfactory either. Perhaps it’s best just to retain the original Czech title: those who are interested will soon figure out what it means, and for those who aren’t particularly interested, I guess it doesn’t matter. But, whatever one chooses to call it, it’s a wonderful work, albeit not quite as well-known as it should be:  it is rarely performed, and, of the major operas by Janáček, this is the one I am least acquainted with. So when I saw a concert performance scheduled in the current BBC Proms season, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jiří Bělohlávek, and featuring Karita Mattila, one of the great singers of our time, in the central role, it was hard to resist.

The trajectory of Janáček’s artistic career is a strange one. Had he died around 1920, say, when in his mid-60s, I suspect he’d have been remembered as a one-hit wonder – that one hit being Jenůfa, one of the most gut-wrenching of all stage works, and a towering masterpiece. He had composed as well some other works of note – some lovely piano pieces, and a couple more operas that are well worth hearing (Osud and The Excursions of Mr Broucek) – but nothing approaching the quality of Jenůfa. And then, in the last seven or eight years of his life, in his late sixties and early seventies, when most artists’ creativity tend to wind down, something strange happened: he produced a string of masterpieces – two string quartets of startling originality, the Sinfonietta, the mind-blowing Glagolitic Mass, and four operas that rank with the finest – Káťa Kabanová, Příhody lišky Bystroušky  (rather unfortunately – and inaccurately – rendered in English as The Cunning Little Vixen), Věc Makropulos, and, finally, The House of the Dead, based on Dostoyevsky’s autobiographical novel set in Siberian labour camps.

What strikes one about these works – quite apart, of course, from their obvious quality – is their dissimilarity from each other in terms of theme; and, Káťa Kabanová apart, their seemingly unoperatic subject matter. Káťa Kabanová, based on the play The Storm by Russian dramatist Alexandr Ostrovsky, has a plotline that virtually cries out for operatic treatment; but the Vixen opera is based on a cartoon strip in a newspaper, is virtually plotless, and features as its characters both humans and forest animals; while his last opera, based on Dostoyevsky, depicts day-to-day life in a labour camp, and is punctuated by long monologues in which various convicts relate the events that had brought them to the dead-house. And the subject of Věc Makropulos, based on a play by Karel Čapek, seems the least operatic of them all. The libretto – adapted by Janáček himself from Čapek’s play – does not read like something intended for an opera house: it is all dialogue, in prose, with little scope for arias or for monologues, or for ensembles: it seems like a conversation piece more than anything else. And the subject appears to be a complex legal case, concerning a disputed inheritance, that has been dragging on for some hundred years – a sort of Czech version of Dedlock vs Dedlock. There is indeed quite a long scene in the first act where the details of this case are spelled out. It’s hard to imagine material less likely for operatic treatment.

Janáček had, no doubt, condensed Čapek’s play – since singing a line takes longer than speaking it, opera libretti must necessarily be shorter than plays – but even after the condensing, it reads like a play rather than as a libretto. And it’s all in prose: no rhymes, no regular pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables – merely spoken dialogue.  Janáček was, apparently, fascinated by speech rhythms and intonations, had developed his own notation of recording them, and had incorporated his expertise in these matters into his music; but I fear this aspect of his work is lost on a non-Czech speaker such as myself: what emerges, for me, at least, is something decidedly prosaic. For much of the opera, what we hear are very brief musical motifs that refuse to combine – either in the vocal lines or in the orchestral parts – to create melody, or even recognisable melodic fragments. It makes Strauss’ Elektra – that uncompromisingly jagged piece of modernism I heard at the same venue a couple of years ago – seem almost like a feast of melody.

I mean this as an observation rather than as a criticism: I do not necessarily look for melody, and am not disappointed when I don’t find it. And in any case, Janáček was at the top of his game at the time of writing this, and what he produced was, quite clearly, what he intended to produce, no matter how much it may puzzle. For there’s no denying that by the time we reach the final act, it is mesmeric. And this final act is not merely stuck on to the first two: it is an integral part of the dramatic arc. In other words, no matter how much the earlier parts of the opera may puzzle with its seemingly un-operatic material, and, some might say, its equally un-operatic musical style (in the sense that there are no long musical lines that both singers and listeners so often delight in), it leads inexorably to a finale that is like no other I have experienced.

I do not know how this is achieved: I am not qualified to comment on the musical side of it. Dramatically, the libretto is not without its faults. In the first scene, Vitek, a lawyer’s clerk and a political radical, recites from a speech by Danton to himself when he thinks no-one is hearing. Presumably, this is taken from Čapek’s play, and leads to something there, but in the opera, it seems utterly gratuitous: indeed, Vitek himself, a minor character, virtually disappears from the action soon afterwards. If Janáček had indeed condensed the play, a bit more condensation may perhaps have not gone amiss.

Unfortunately, I have not been able to track down a translation of Čapek’s play, and am not even sure that a translation exists. In the notes in the booklet accompanying the recording conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras, Janáček expert and biographer John Tyrrell quotes Čapek biographer William Harkins:

… the intensity of Čapek ‘s ideas is never matched by a corresponding intensity of language.

and goes on to say that, in effect, Janáček had improved on the original material, providing a solemn tragic dimension to a comedy that, if not entirely light-hearted, was not too substantial either. That may be so, but I would love to read the play for myself, and would be grateful if anyone could point me in the direction of a good translation. Certainly the ideas that animate the drama, whether or not they are matched by a corresponding intensity of language, are immensely striking.

For what emerges through all the ordinary, prosaic stuff about legal cases and disputed wills is a quite extraordinary and, indeed, poetic story. It concerns Emilia Marty, a beautiful and gifted opera singer, who, for reasons not immediately divulged, takes an interest in this seemingly dull legal case, and appears, mysteriously, to know about the private affairs of various people who had been alive a hundred years ago. She refuses to answer any questions on how she came to know such things, and treats everyone and everything with a cold, undisguised contempt. What she is interested in is a certain document that, she knows, is in the same place as a will that is as yet unseen. It is this document that is, specifically, the “Makropulos Thing” of the title. To get her hands on this document, she agrees, with seeming indifference, without either desire or distaste, to spend a night with Baron Prus; but when they emerge from the hotel bedroom in the third act, the Baron describes the encounter as like “making love to a corpse”.

The secret finally emerges: Emilia Marty is 337 years old: her real name – that is, the name she had been born with – is Elina Makropulos. Her father, an alchemist of the sixteenth century, and created an elixir for eternal life, and had been ordered to test it first on his own daughter. She, having taken it, had fallen into a coma, and her father was imprisoned as a fraud. But he was no fraud: the daughter had emerged from the coma free from the shadow of death: she had, indeed, eternal life. And over the centuries, she had perfected her art as a singer, and had emerged under different names in different eras. Now, she needs her father’s formula – contained in the “Makropulos Thing” she so desperately wants to get her hands on – to renew her eternal youth.

But there is a price to be extracted for eternity:  life, for her, is empty. She had loved, but those she had loved – such as the man who had written the disputed will, and to whom she bore an illegitimate child – are now long dead; and now, even love has come to seem a pointless rigmarole.

In the prelude that opens the opera, the music turns and churns: brass motifs heard offstage seem to echo down from somewhere far distant in time itself. Once the action begins, we seem to be in a very ordinary world of lawyers’ offices, hotel rooms, backstage after performance; but through this ordinariness emerges the extraordinary. And by the end, without my realising quite how I got there, I found myself in the grips of one of the most mesmerising of all operatic tragedies, as Elina Makropulos concedes the sheer pointlessness of eternity.

I am not qualified to comment on the musical performance, except to say that, to my ears at least, it was magnificent. The BBC Symphony Orchestra played like the world class orchestra it is, and Karita Mattila projected not merely her undoubted vocal prowess, but all the charisma and personality such a role requires. To see so great a singer and actress, still in her artistic prime despite having been at the top of her career now for several decades, is in itself a privilege.

As for the opera itself, I came out of the Royal Albert Hall as shaken as I had been (albeit for different reasons) when I had come out having seen Strauss’ Elektra there some two years ago. The two operas, despite both being tragedies, are very different: with Elektra, one has no doubt from the very opening chords that one is in a mythic world darkened by blood and by a violence that is both mental and physical; but here, despite the foreboding music of the prelude, one seems very much in a world of the mundane, the ordinary. What is striking here is the emergence of the extraordinary from the ordinary, of the tragic from the mundane.

In many ways, I couldn’t help thinking, this opera is the diametric opposite of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Wagner liked his operas long, and constructed them so that, when listening, we lose the sense of time passing, while Janáček preferred his operas short (between 90 and 120 minutes, at most), and here, made the passage of time his very theme; Wagner’s opera virtually strips out all external action, so that what we experience seems to be taking place somewhere deep within our unconscious, whereas Janáček sets his work with an almost dogged determination in a very real world; Wagner shows us a world in which human love is given meaning and significance by the presence of death, whereas Janáček shows us a world in which everything that is of value, even love itself, is rendered pointless by the absence of death. For, as Wagner and Janáček both knew – and, I’d imagine, Karel Čapek too – love is only possible between dying things. Eternity is not for the likes of us.

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9 responses to this post.

  1. I would love to read the play for myself, and would be grateful if anyone could point me in the direction of a good translation.

    I have no idea how good it is, but there’s a translation here:
    https://www.amazon.com/Capek-Four-Plays-Makropulos-Classics/dp/0413771903/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1473078876&sr=1-1&keywords=Capek+Four+Plays

    Reply

    • Thanks very much for that – it’s just what I as looking for (and I can’t imagine why i had missed that!) I’ll place an order on that right away.

      Reply

    • Posted by Janet on September 5, 2016 at 5:57 pm

      OOOoo! That’s a find. I need that one too. War with the Newts is one of those novels that makes you think, yeah, I’ll read anything by that guy. I know nothing of Janacek beyond a slight familiarity with his Sinfonietta, which gets a modicum of airplay, but you have stirred my curiosity. I will go forth and explore.

      Reply

      • Janáček is a composer well worth getting to know – and if you’re on the hunt for recordings, may i recommend the perormances conducted by Janáček specialist Sir Charles Mackerras? Absolutely wonderful!

  2. Incidentally, for those living in UK, you can still hear the Proms performance on BBC i-Player till September 18th:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07nmx60

    Reply

  3. First of all, congratulations on getting all the diacritic marks in the right place! I’m hoping they’ll work here too…

    I saw Capek’s play a while ago here in Prague, and was quite struck by how closely the opera followed it. As you say it’s hardly promising operatic material, but then Janáček was a master at making operas out of unlikely subjects (Z mrtvého domu being the most obvious example). Agree too that he’s at the opposite pole to Wagner in terms of brevity; his operas are shorter than some of Wagner’s acts! You certainly get plenty of time on the pub after the performance.

    Was the opera in English or Czech? It’s certainly a complex plot and although I like to thing my Czech’s quite good, I get lost with the legal wranglings (the same when I read it in English, actually). Proof that even in those days lawyers had do complicate everything.

    Věc has the flexibility of “thing” in English – i.e. physical or abstract – and it can be translated as “cause” in the legal sense. I’m surprised, that hasn’t been adopted.

    Glad you enjoyed it. It’s marvellous music, especially EM’s long scene at the end.

    Reply

    • The performance was in Czech. the libretto and translation were printed in the programme, but I dislike reading while I am listening. I had a fair idea of the contents of the libretto, but I gave it a quick read beforehand, and then relied on the music to tell me what’s happening.

      I cheated with the diacritic marks: I googles all the Czech names, and then simply copied and pasted as appropriate. I don’t even understand what those funny marks and squiggles all mean… 🙂

      That final scene really is among the great glories of opera, isn’t it?

      Wagner and Janáček were diametrically opposite in so many ways, but Tristan & Isolde and Makropulos seem to be coming at the same thing from different angles: in Wagner’s opera, it is the presence of death that gives meaning to life, whereas in Janáček’s, it’s the absence of death that renders life pointless. And of course, Wagner’s opera ends with a liebestod (although I never did figure out who this Mildew Lisa was!), while Janáček’s ends with that extraordinary scene where, once again, death is presented as a consummation devoutly to be wished.

      My favourite Janáček piece remains that Vixen opera – but I’m so glad I went to see this!

      Reply

  4. Don’t know what happened to the háček in the playwright’s name…

    Reply

  5. Yes, Vixen’s probably my favourite too, but very much prima inter pares.

    I take the same approach with libretti; I try to learn as much as I can before I listen because I find that following text distracts from the music.

    Apologies for the typos in the first post – spellcheck causes more problems than it solves sometimes!

    Reply

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