Opera Profile: Janacek’s ‘The Makropulos Affair’

By David Salazar

Premiering on Dec. 18, 1926, “The Markopulos Affair” is Leos Janacek’s penultimate opera, followed by “From the House of the Dead.” The opera. The work is based on the play by Karel Capek (Janacek adapted the libretto himself) and Janacek is said to have initiated contact with the playwright in 1922 to begin the adaptation process. However, legal issues delayed the composer’s ability to move forward with the work until 1923, when he was given the green light.

The work has never been a repertory staple the way “The Cunning Little Vixen” and “Katya Kabaonova” have.

Short Plot Summary

The Kolenaty’s clerk Vitek remarks that the case Gregor v. Prus has been going on for almost a century. Kolenaty, who represents the Gregors in the suit, arrives with Emilia Marty, a famous singer who is admired by Albert Gregor’s daughter Kristina. He reviews the case with Marty, essentially assessing that neither party can produce an actual will to establish who is to wind up with Baron Joseph Ferdinand Prus’ estate. After much conversation, Marty asserts that there is a will in an old cupboard in the Prus mansion. Albert Gregor orders Kolenaty to go to the house at once to investigate, then proceeds to make advances on Emilia, who refuses him but asks for his help in securing a document within the will. Kolenaty returns with the will and notes that Gregor can obtain control as long as he can prove that Ferdinand Gregor was the baron’s son out-of-wedlock. Emilia is confident she can do just that.

Numerous characters head to the opera house to see Emilia, a number of the men make advances on her until eventually, she gets Jaroslav’s word that he will secure her the document within the will as long as he promises to spend the night with him.

She spends the night with him and eventually receives the documents, though not without another character, Janek, committing suicide and others accusing her of forgery.

Eventually, Emilia reveals that she is Elina Makropulos, born in 1585, her immortality the result of a potion her father concocted during her early years. She has concealed her identity through a number of different identities. She gave the formula to Baron Joseph to put in the will. Its effect is wearing off and she needed it to gain another 300 years of life. She starts to age and gives the formula to Kristina so she can become a great artist, but Kristina burns it. Elina dies.

Watch and Listen

Here is a recording from one of the foremost interpreters of the opera – Karita Mattila.


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