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May 30, 2006

Reflections on the Tedium of Immortality: Janacek's The Makropulos Case at the Coliseum

Posted by Kenneth Minogue

Janacek's The Makropulos Case
English National Opera, London Coliseum
conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras
directed by Christopher Alden
in repertory 18th May - 9th June 2006

The Makropulos Case is for my money the best and certainly the most challenging of Janacek's operas. The music is marvellously lyrical, crossed with the kind of dissonance that reflects the strangeness of its story. It is not a score one could easily mistake for something in another opera.

The story tells of the last days of an opera singer now over 300 years old. This is not, evidently, a story of everyday life. Its heroine, now called Emilia Marty, was the daughter of the Court alchemist to Rudolf II back in the sixteenth century, and created an elixir that would extend life for 300 years. The Emperor, suspecting poison, insisted that the first beneficiary of this marvellous elixir should be the alchemist's own daughter, and the result is that she has lived through many lives, under many names, all with the initials E. M.

In the past she has been involved with successive generations of two families, called Gregor and Prus, who in 1920 are still engaged in a long running law suit about possession of an estate. Emilia Marty knows all about where the crucial evidence about the true heir (one of her own children, of course) may be found, and she is keen to involve herself in it because the formula for the elixir is also to be found among these old papers. The effect of the drug is weakening, and without the formula, she is going to die. She needs, as it were, another fix. Romantic and dazzling as she is, however, she is not a character with whom it is easy to sympathise. She is both fascinating and cruel, utterly without concern for others, in fact deranged. How would you be if you'd been around for more than three hundred years?

The value of living beyond our normal span is thus the issue posed by the opera, and it seems to have had a strange genesis. George Bernard Shaw had argued in Man and Superman that human beings needed lives of some hundreds of years in order to enjoy the cultural riches of our civilisation. The Czech writer Karel Capek wrote The Makropulos Case as a reply, arguing that the repetition of human experiences over time would derange the understanding, so that events and relationships would lose all meaning.

Capek's play appears to have been a conversation piece on philosophical themes; it is described as a comedy. Janacek's opera is anything but. Emilia Marty is a tormented creature incapable of human responses, and her last moments hysterically denouncing her condition and yearning for death are deeply moving, especially in Cheryl Barker's marvellous rendition of her character.

It is a pleasure to report that the (expensive) programme is excellent, unmarked by the political banalities so common these days. An extract from Capek's play makes it clear why the play has largely disappeared from sight while the opera goes from strength to strength. Capek was a brilliant writer, full of ideas and a pioneer in various fields (our term "robot" comes from his science fiction play R.U.R.) but he seems to have had doubts about getting involved with Janacek. He refused to write the libretto, so Janacek wrote it himself.

In the last decade of his life, Janacek was fascinated by the soprano Kamila Stosslova, who seems to have kept her distance from him. It is plausible to think that aspects of Kamila appear in three of Janacek's operas Jenufa, The Cunning Little Vixen and Emilia Marty. Describing Marty, Janacek wrote to Kamila:

She ...doesn't want to live any longer when she sees how happy we are, we who have such a short life. We look forward to everything, we want to make use of everything our life is so short
. One might, I suppose, vulgarly translate the message to Kamila as:
Gather ye rosebuds while ye may
Vanda Prochazka argues in the programme that the opera is not the philosophical work that it might have been had Capek written the libretto. I wonder. The great strength of what Janacek has done to the story lies in its concentration on the central theme and this turns it into a tragedy. It is however a tragedy with resonance. The theme of change and decay picks up the condition of Czechoslovakia and other parts of the late Austro-Hungarian empire, in which the arrangements of the past have been frozen into a condition in which the law replaces human responses.

Another note in the programme suggests that:

at the heart of this tragedy is a vision of modern society, rich in the technology to defeat death but poor in the connections that draw life in.
The central theme is the significance of death in human life. The philosopher Bernard Williams (who was for a time himself a governor of the ENO) wrote a meditation on the theme of mortality, an essay which he called by the same name as the opera, adding:
reflections on the tedium of immortality.
Immortality, he characteristically argued, would be infinitely boring, and death is necessary to give meaning to life. One would eventually have had altogether too much of oneself. The problem is that death hardly ever comes at quite the right time often too early, sometimes too late. Such is the human condition.

Kenneth Minogue is Professor Emeritus of Political Science, London School of Economics.

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