Most women past the age of, say, 60, would think twice about sporting black leather jodhpurs. But then Emilia Marty, the anti-heroine of Leos Janacek’s oddball opera “The Makropulos Case,” is not your average dame. So there she is, age 337 and counting, stomping around in those jodhpurs, a sheer blouse and a black leather cap, looking like nothing so much as a refugee from Liliana Cavani’s “The Night Porter,” reeling with bitter laughter as she tells her stunned audience just how she made it to this ripe moment.
She’s definitely a sight to see, and so is the Glyndebourne Opera Festival’s sleek and witty production, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music through Saturday. It is a triumphant U.S. debut for the legendary organization and a personal triumph for Anja Silja, the German soprano who is expertly personifying the mysterious Ms. Marty, aka Elena Makropulos, aka Ellian MacGregor, on and on through time, with new luggage but the same monogram.
Janacek’s opera is based on a comic play by Karel Capek, and director Nikolaus Lehnhoff and his set and costume designer Tobias Hoheisel have accommodated the tale’s black humor. Marty’s costumes are a case in point: In the first act, when she descends upon the law office engaged in a tangled estate case that holds the key to her destiny, she’s decked out in a man’s pin-striped suit, gangster-style. In the next act, backstage at the opera where she’s a reigning diva, Marty appears as a sequined peacock, later stepping out of her armored skirt like a snake shedding its skin.
That jarring leather getup signifies for the first time that this always-in-control woman is losing her grip, and at a particularly ironic moment — when she’s ready to celebrate her recovery of the secret formula for eternal life. We know Emilia’s packing it in when she shows up next in a simple, sack-like sheath; having given up on clothes, those dependable shapers of our identity (or in her case identities), this fashion victim is ready to forsake life.
As we mortal human beings tend to be, Silja is a bit less forthcoming about her age than the heroine she is portraying. Let it suffice to say that she’s old enough to make her performance remarkable. Her legendary career spans more than 40 years, but she is still an arresting vocal interpreter capable of blazing bursts of power, even if beauty of tone and vocal finesse are not in endless supply. E.M. is not a role that requires these in great doses; there is something shrill and harassed in the sound of much of the character’s vocal writing.
Silja is also a persuasive actress, and inhabits her character with a stillness that’s in contrast to the cartoon bustling of the characters who surround her. The numbness that is beyond despair is tellingly communicated. And yet she does not skimp on the monstrousness: Emilia’s cool and thorough brushing of her hair while she takes in the news that one of her admirers has offed himself is worthy of Hannibal Lecter.
The opera is devoid of long, lyrical melodies. It’s more like a play with dense, tense and dramatically suggestive underscoring. Janacek’s orchestra almost always retains a distance from the vocal writing, perhaps a reflection of the idea that Marty’s immortality keeps her cut off from the richnesses and harmonies of life. The Brooklyn Philharmonic was impressively dramatic and expressive under conductor David Atherton, and the supporting roles all were acted and sung with pungency and care.
Nevertheless, aside from Silja, the real star of the evening was the ingenious staging by Lehnhoff and designer Hoheisel. It took a while to notice, but the center of the stage was a strip that moved almost imperceptibly, bearing away one set of furnishings and bringing on those for the next scene. Thus one scene melded seamlessly into the next, a clever and haunting commentary on the heroine’s sad predicament. When life has no limits, milestones like birth and death and love and anguish disappear, and all becomes a meaningless blur.