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  • Janáček's Makropulos and the Case of the Silent Diva
  • Jennifer Sheppard (bio)

Disquieting song

Grotesquely illuminated by a green light, Emilia Marty, the central character of Janáček's Věc Makropulos (1926), makes her final entrance on stage. In the passing of just a few minutes, Marty—until this point an arresting, ageless beauty—has diminished to a shadow. Born in 1585, she was given an elixir of immortality at the age of sixteen; from that time, in the first years of the seventeenth century, she has lived an inhuman life as an undying singer. Now, however, the suppressed aging of her artificially sustained three hundred years catches up with her in a moment: when she creeps on stage for her last scene, she is physically ruined and near death. Marty's decline has little of the graphic horror unveiled in the transformation of Dorian Gray's portrait, yet the exposure of an unnatural force is strikingly similar. As it was in The Excursions of Mr. Brouček (1920), green light was again Janáček's recourse when something more than music was needed to suggest rupture and the penetration of the supernatural into the "real" world on stage.

From Marty's reappearance the opera moves swiftly to its denouement. The flurry of dramatic events and revelations in the third act contrasts with the lack of action in the preceding two, which are sustained only by a sense of gradually mounting intrigue. Janáček matches the general lack of action with economy in the music, especially the singing, which he casts in the most stripped-down terms: Marty's vocal lines above all are terse yet athletic in range, harsh in their disjunct intervals, torrid in pace. But in her final scene, as she is dying, her dormant vocality erupts in a lyrical outpouring—a swan song, in fact, of epic proportions. The lament for her long life is cast not in the erratic, rapid-fire rhythms of her previous vocal persona, but instead in rhythmically and melodically balanced phrases. The simple, lilting rhythm of the melody for "Ach, nemá se tak dlouho žít!" (Ah, one shouldn't have such a long life!) is paired with an expanding wedge in intervals, while the more complex, though symmetrical rhythm of "O kdybyste věděli, jak se vám lehko žije!" (Oh if you could see, how easily you [End Page 51] live!) is weighted with the repetition of the D-flat to B–double-flat interval at the end of each half-phrase (ex. 1). This exceptional regularity is further buttressed by orchestral combinations that Janáček reserved for moments of great emotion: swelling violin lines and rising cello arpeggios rounded out with the richness of low woodwinds and horns. The only interruptions, if they can be called that, come from an offstage men's chorus, who intone "hymnally" between her phrases.


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Example 1.

(she wrings her hands) "Ah, one shouldn't have such a long life! Oh if you could see, how easily you live!"

Marty's decrepit appearance marks a decisive break from the drama on which the libretto was based, a recent and popular play by the Czech writer Karel Čapek (1890–1938). In Čapek, Marty neither ages nor dies within the timescale of the play; Janáček chose to focus on her demise, and altered the conclusion so that the opera would culminate in Marty's death. That her death would be deliverance from a meaningless life was merely implied in Čapek's play; Janáček, in the superemotive music he provided at the conclusion of the opera, ensured that it [End Page 52] was unmistakeable. The contrast could not be greater: Čapek's rapid-fire play is witty to its final glib line; Janáček's opera concludes, typically for him, with a cathartic and semitragic finale.

Much critical praise has been lavished on Makropulos's closing music: it is as beautiful as it is unprecedented in the opera. Yet, against the modern sentiment and cynical tone of the opera, the compassion the men's chorus expresses for Marty is out of place. What is...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1476-2870
Print ISSN
0736-0053
Pages
pp. 51-72
Launched on MUSE
2010-02-03
Open Access
No
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