Bitter Immortality: Janacek's 'Makropulos Case'

The opera's key character was born in Greece at the dawn of the 17th century, as Elina Makropulos. As a teenager, acting as a sort of experimental guinea pig, she swallowed a potion cooked up by her father. He was court physician to the emperor in Prague, and was ordered to concoct a formula for eternal life.

WOO-1207-Makropolous-300-3She then trained as an opera singer. According to the story, the formula gave her hundreds of years to hone her technique, and she became the best in the world. She moved from country to country, constantly changing her name to avoid detection, but always keeping the same initials-- E. M.

Over time, she was Elsa Müller, Eugenia Montez and Ellian MacGregor. As Janacek's opera opens, she's calling herself Emilia Marty. She's 337 years old, and has returned to Prague, where her long life story began.

ACT ONE begins in the office of Dr. Kolenaty -- a lawyer. He's working on a long-running lawsuit involving two families -- Gregor and Prus. They've been fighting over the same estate for a century or more. Albert Gregor is there, asking law clerk Vitek how his case is proceeding. Vitek's daughter Kristina is there too. She's an aspiring singer who has just returned from a rehearsal at the theater where Emilia Marty is performing.

Emilia herself shows up. She's very curious about the lawsuit and seems to know a lot about it. She informs the lawyer that there should be a will, still in the mansion somewhere, which might clear up just who should inherit the estate. Gregor forces his disbelieving lawyer to go find it.

For her own purposes, Emilia's not interested in the will. She's looking for an old Greek document attached to it. Recently, and for the first time, she's beginning to feel signs of age, and the document contains her father's recipe for the long-life elixir.

ACT TWO opens on an empty opera stage. It's the morning after one of Emilia's performances. A cleaning lady and a stage-hand are discussing last night's show. Jaroslav Prus arrives, waiting for Emilia. His young son Janek is there, with his girlfriend Kristina. Albert Gregor and the law clerk Vitek also show up.

WOO-1207-Makropolous-300-4And before long, Emilia herself arrives. She's in the kind of mood that only the nastiest diva would envy. She's rude to everyone, dismissing compliments and throwing gifts to the ground.

The only person she doesn't insult is a dotty old duffer named Hauk-Šendorf. He's come to see Emilia, saying she's the spitting image of a lover he had 50 years ago, called Eugenia Montez. No doubt Emilia was that lover.

Emilia orders everyone out except Prus, who mentions that, along with the will that was found earlier, there was a sealed envelope. Emilia believes it must contain the secret formula she's been searching for. She offers to buy the envelope from him. He tells her no deal, and leaves when Albert Gregor returns. Gregor is desperately in love with Emilia, but she rebuffs him and nods off into a nap.

When she wakes up, Prus's son Janek is at her side. She asks him to swipe the sealed envelope from his father, and hand it over to her. But Prus himself overhears, and orders his son to clear out. Then he tells Emilia that he might just be willing to give her the envelope later that night -- provided that she spends the night with him.

ACT THREE is set in a hotel room. Emilia and Prus have spent the night, but Prus feels he didn't get much out of it, as Emilia has treated him coldly the whole time. Still, he lives up to his end of the bargain, and hands her the envelope. Then he's called away by a chambermaid, and when he returns he's devastated by the news that his son Janek has killed himself. Emilia shows no emotion at all.

Prus leaves and runs into the old man Hauk-Šendorf. He's there to propose elopement to Emilia. She accepts, but they're interrupted by the lawyer Kolenaty, the clerk Vitek, and the young singer Kristina. They've discovered that one of the documents Emilia supplied as evidence in the lawsuit they've been contesting was forged -- a document that helped Emilia obtain the formula from Prus.

When Emilia goes to change clothes, the others rummage through her trunk. They find various old papers referring to Ellian MacGregor, Eugenia Montez … and Elina Makropulos.

Emilia returns, a little tipsy, and admits her entire story. Her real name, she says, is Elina Makropulos. She was born in 1585 and took an elixir made up by her father, which gave her such an incredibly long life. But her time is running out, so she had to find the secret formula, and mix up another batch.

WOO-1207-Makropolous-300-2Everyone is shocked, but they all believe Emilia's story. She collapses, and they carry her to the bedroom. When she returns, she looks like a shadow. In a stunning final scene, set to a haunting, slow waltz, she tells everyone how meaningless her life has been, as an offstage male chorus repeats her words. She says she no longer wants the formula, and gives it to Kristina, the budding young opera star. Kristina, in turn, lights the document on fire. As it burns, Elina Makropulos falls to the floor, dead, and the opera ends.

Emilia is left alone with Gregor. Her personality captivates him, but she's disappointed to find out that he doesn't know anything about a Greek document among his family papers. The lawyer returns with the will, and with the other party to the lawsuit, Jaroslav Prus. But more evidence is needed to prove who gets the estate -- and as the act ends, Emilia says that SHE might be just able to provide that evidence.