The Court battle concerning the inheritance affair between the Gregor and Prus families has been continuing for almost one hundred years, and today the Supreme Court is to give its final verdict. Albert Gregor, representing the plaintiff, arrives at the offices of his advocate Kolenatý, to ask for the verdict. He only finds the solicitor Vítek, however. Meanwhile, Vítek‘s daughter Kristina, a young beginner opera singer, arrives at the offices and enthuses about the famous and somewhat mysterious singer Emilia Marty. At that moment Marty appears at the doors to the office accompanied by the advocate Kolenatý. She has come to ask about the Gregor court case, and all those present are astounded by her knowledge of events that had taken place one hundred years previously, and also by the fact that she knew about the relationship between the long-dead Baron Prus and his mistress Ellian Macgregor. She even knew the exact place where the unknown documents were stored, including the will of Baron Prus. Kolenatý does not believe her, but under pressure from Albert Gregor he is forced to return to Prus’s house to search for the documents. After a while the advocate Kolenatý returns together with Gregor’s court rival, Jaroslav Prus. They arrive with the news that at the site that was indicated by Marty, they had indeed found some old, until then unknown, paperwork.
In the wings of the theatre the staff are discussing the successful performance of the singer Emilia Marty. Two admirers are waiting for the singer here, amongst them Jaroslav Prus. His son Janek meets his sweetheart Kristina at the theatre. Kristina is completely fascinated by Marty and she also wants to become a famous artist. Marty arrives and received her admirers including Albert Gregor and the feeble-minded Hauk-Šendorf, who is reminded of his old flame Eugenia Montez by the singer. The tired Marty sends everybody away. Only Prus remains, who informs Marty about the secret mistress of his ancestor, the singer Ellen Macgregor, the mother of the Baron’s illegitimate child. In the register, however, she had been entered under a different name – Elina Makropulos. Marty is however interested in the secret envelope which is hidden amongst the other documents and which Prus refuses to hand over. Albert Gregor to tell her of his love, which is not returned, however. Janek has also fallen in love with Marty but he is too shy to say anything. Marty encourages him to obtain the secret envelope without his father‘s knowledge, but suddenly his father, Prus, enters, who says that she could have the envelope if she spends the night with him.
Marty has fulfilled her side of the agreement and now she asks Prus for the promised envelope. She receives it, but Prus is not pleased –he did not expect such coldness from her. His servant is looking for him; he has some tragic news. Prus’s son Janek had committed suicide out of his love for Marty. The confused Hauk enters with an offer of a joint elopement to Spain. Marty agrees to go with him, but at that moment Gregor, Kolenatý and Vítek arrive with Kristina. They have many questions: after Marty has signed a souvenir photograph for Kristina they discover that her signature is the same as that on the century-old documents. They urge Marty to such an extent that the singer starts to relate her unbelievable tale. Her real name is Elina Makropulos, and was the daughter of the Greek Hieronymous Makropulos who, as the personal physician to Emperor Rudolf II, had attempted to produce an elixir of youth. He tried it on his daughter, and she was now 337 years of age. Over the centuries she had changed her identity; amongst other names had used Ellian Macgregor, and had been the lover of Prus, and had also been the Spanish gypsy Eugenia Montez, who had known Hauk-Šendorf. Now she was posing as Emilia Marty and had become entangled in the in the affair because she was looking for the envelope with the recipe for the elixir of youth – the same envelope for which Jaroslav Prus had given to her in exchange for a night spent together. The elixir works for only three hundred years and, should Marty wish to live longer, she must drink another draught. However, she realises that she no longer enjoys life; she is tired and weary, and life had lost its meaning. She wants to die, and decides not to drink the new elixir. She gives the recipe to Kristina, and offers her everlasting youth, beauty and fame. The young girl burns the paper, however, and chooses instead a short, but meaningful life.
Director: Claus Guth
Conductor: Robert Jindra
Emilia Marty – Dorothea Röschmann
Albert Gregor – Aleš Briscein
Vítek – Stephan Rügamer
Kristina – Natalia Skrycka
Janek Prus – Linard Vrielink
Jaroslav Prus – Adam Plachetka
Dr. Kolenatý – Jan Martinik
Strojník – Dionysios Avgerinos
Poklízečka – Adriane Queiroz
Hauk-Šendorf – Jan Ježek
Komorná – Rebecka Wallroth
“If someone doesn’t like opera, take them to see Janáček,” said conductor Simon Rattle and he is right. Janáček’s operas are each unique in their own right, running at the speed of thought and theatrical in the best sense of the word. For example, The Makropulos Affair with its almost detective plot is certainly not a typical operatic subject, but in Janáček’s rendition, a century-old court dispute over an inheritance quickly turns into a gripping drama about the search for the meaning of human life. It is even more of an experience when you add director Claus Guth’s production view, where realistic images of the law office and the theatre backstage alternate with surreal moments of the main character’s isolation. The German director Claus Guth is one of the world’s leading filmmakers and is best known for his productions of works by Richard Strauss, Richard Wagner and Händel. His first encounter with Czech opera was a production of Bohuslav Martinů’s Juliette in 2016, but it was not until six years later that his first Janáček came, an excellent production of Jenůfa for Covent Garden. The Makropulos Affair was written for the Berlin Staatsoper and this is the first time this great opera company will be performing at the festival.
The Makropulos Affair is in many ways a work unparalleled in the world of opera. It is not surprising that Karel Čapek, the author of the literary original, was initially somewhat sceptical about Janáček’s intention to adapt his play into an opera. Set in a legal environment, full of dialogue and with a convoluted storyline, where characters make phone calls and where tracing family connections is almost a task for a genealogy expert, the plot was not entirely typical of opera even in the early 20th century. But Janáček, who had already dealt with life and its endless cycle in The Cunning Little Vixen was very interested in what The Makropulos Affair hides under its legal-detective plot – the question whether immortality can bring happiness to people or whether human life is fulfilled by the inevitability of the end. Janáček himself later recalled: “It gripped me. You know, the horrible, the emotional of a human that will never end. Pure misery. Wanting nothing, expecting nothing. There must be something to it. The third act, that’s what I take pride in: the rush, the cliff! That’s what I felt, that’s what I wanted.“ Čapek eventually agreed to the musicalization, and Janáček set about revising and shortening the text of the play. He devoted the next two years to the composition, and Janáček’s correspondence traces his interest in and sympathy for the opera’s main character: “A beauty 300 years old – and eternally young – but only a burnt-out emotion! Brr! Cold as ice! But I’ll make her warmer so people will have compassion for her. I might even fall in love with her.” The premiere in 1928 in the Brno theatre before Christmas aroused unprecedented interest and the theatre was completely sold out! The success was huge. Janáček recalled: “The cold one was an unprecedented success! A chill went down everyone’s spine. It’s supposedly my greatest work!”