Die Sache Makropulos
OPERA IN THREE ACTS (1926)
Music and text by
Leoš Janáček after the eponymous play by Karel Čapek
No one suspects that somewhere among the tall stacks of paper from the court battle lies a mysterious old recipe for an elixir that can extend life by 300 years. Marty has already taken the potion once and is now trying to get it back in order to extend her life a second time. But after literally stopping at nothing to get her hands on the recipe, when she finally holds it, she realises the price of eternal life. Janáček’s penultimate opera is his most peculiar, and not only because of its surprising plot twists. The main theme of all his operas – love – appears here in relief, in the form of its absence. In his operatic adaptation, Janáček transforms the aloof frigidity and irony of Karel Čapek’s original play into a veritable tragedy that provokes sympathy for its unapproachable, weary and emotionally impoverished lead character.
At the offices of the law firm Dr. Kolenatý. The office clerk Vítek is sorting the files for the probate case Gregor vs. Prus; after having gone on for a century, it was finally coming to a conclusion. Albert Gregor impatiently awaits Dr. Kolenatý’s return from court to hear the latest news about the case. Vítek’s daughter Krista, a young singer at the local theater, storms into the office gushing to her father about the famous opera singer Emilia Marty, who shortly thereafter arrives with Dr. Kolenatý. Kolenatý explains: the trial is about the inheritance of Baron Prus, who died childless in 1827. His cousin Emmerich Prus and a young man named Ferdinand Gregor, who derived his claim from an oral agreement according to which a certain Mr. MacGregor was to inherit, contested Prus’ country estate Loukov. Albert, the last Gregor, can only win the trial if he can provide a written will. Strangely, Marty is able to explain exactly where the will could be found and what it stipulates: that Baron Prus left his estate to the illegitimate son Ferdinand Gregor. His mother was a singer named Ellian MacGregor. Kolenatý doesn’t believe her, but Gregor forces him to investigate the matter. Albert Gregor is fascinated by Marty and starts making advances at her. She tells him what he could do for her: she is in search of a Greek manuscript that the old Prus must have inherited. Kolenatý has found the will in the house of the adversary Jaroslav Prus and returns with him. Now it needs to be established whether Ferdinand Gregor was actually the son of Baron Prus. Emilia Marty wants to provide Kolenatý with an old document in order to prove that.
At the theater after the performance. A cleaning lady and a stagehand speak about Marty, who celebrated a triumph on the stage that night. Several admirers await her: Jaroslav Prus, Vítek, and Albert Gregor. And finally Prus’ son Janek, who has just learned that his fiancé Krista wants to break off with him for art. Marty coldly or rudely spurns all the compliments she receives. She only allows the mad old man Hauk-Šendorf to kiss her. He thinks she is the singer Eugenia Montez, with whom he had a relationship fifty years earlier. Emilia lets him know that it is indeed she.
Among the documents, Jaroslav Prus has found love letters that are all signed E. M. He thinks that not Ellian MacGregor is the mother of the heir in question, but Elina Makropulos, a name that he found in an old baptismal registry. According to this, the property would not be rightfully Gregor’s, but would belong to a Prus. He also mentions a sealed Greek document that he found and does not want to hand over. Emilia Marty can only convince him to give her the document for the price of a night of lovemaking.
At the hotel. After their night spent together, Jaroslav Prus hands the sealed document over to Emilia. He is shocked by her coldness. He is brought a letter with the last words of his son: Janek has shot himself out of unrequited love for Emilia Marty. She shows no reaction at all.
Once again, Hauk-Šendorf appears. He wants to flee with her to Spain, and she immediately agrees. Their departure is blocked by the appearance of Dr. Kolenatý, Gregor, Prus, Vítek, and Krista. She is accused of document forgery. The signature for Krista and the signature on the supposedly old document are both identical. And she has Janek on her conscience. A search of her luggage reveals more damning evidence, so that Emilia Marty has to admit her secret. Her name is Elina Makropulos and she was born in 1585 in Crete. Her father was Hieronymus Makropulos, alchemist in Prague and Emperor Rudolph II’s private physician. He was forced to try out an elixir that was supposed to grant immortality on his own daughter. She fell into a coma and her father went to prison. A week later, she awakened and fled. Since then, she has had many names, including Ellian MacGregor and Eugenia Montez. She left her father’s formula with Baron Prus, the only man she ever loved and with whom she had the son Ferdinand. But now the potion was losing its power. To live another 300 years, she needed to find the formula. But now she realizes that she wants to surrender to finitude and hands over the recipe to Krista, who takes it and burns it.
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