I am not Julia Roberts, my life is not a movie (or at least not that movie) and I've never even set foot on Rodeo Drive. But I was flown by my beau from Los Angeles to San Francisco, we did go to the opera and we did sit in pretty impressive (okay, they were amazing) box seats. We did not, however, see a Traviata of Narrative Significance. We saw Vec Makropulos with Karita Mattila.
Which by any standards is not an evening out to be sniffed at. Karita is an acknowledged superstar. And Janacek is wonderful, or at least I think he is; as keen as I was to see Karita again (I saw her in recital in London four years ago) it was really the prospect of seeing one of my favourite operas — and particularly the last fifteen minutes or so of that opera — which was top of my excitement list. Not to mention Jiří Bělohlávek in charge of the orchestra — he's about as good as it gets in this repertoire; his conducting of the recent live Rusalka from Glyndebourne absolutely (and oh so prettily) steals the heroine's thunder.
Well, Janáček did not disappoint and nor did Jiří. I found the opera as engaging as ever and those last fifteen minutes reduced me to tears as they always, always do. The amazing seats were indeed amazing, and my encroaching cold (albeit with pharmaceutical help) even let up long enough to let me pretend it didn't exist. (It did.) Olivier Tambosi's staging was clever and visually appealing, occasional weirdness aside, although I still prefer Opera Australia's Neil Armfield production.
But all of the hype for this show, and I had read quite a bit of it, had centred on one single entity: that glamorous Finn in the lead role. I had read nothing about her but superlatives and undying love: she was perfect, amazing, scintillating, phenomenal, and so on and so on and so on. I heard more of this in the house from fellow audience members too. Thousands of people can't be wrong, and yet I have to say, I didn't quite get it.
There's no doubting her commitment, or the beauty or distinctiveness of her voice, or her textual awareness, or her stage presence — especially the stage presence, which is commanding to a fault. And yet that last degree of engagement was missing for me. She was a platinum vixen of an Emilia, whose irresistibility one could well understand, but then again, this often felt overplayed to me. She could sing gorgeously, though I didn't think she always did so — perhaps this was not her best night — but even at its loveliness, a certain frisson was still absent. I longed for more and darker colours but they didn't come.
Similarly, I longed for more facets to her character, for at least a flicker or two of humanity beneath the bitchy appearance — but that depth, too, never came. Which is, to be fair, probably a valid interpretation of Emilia, although I think the opportunities to show a human side are there, for those inclined to explore them. The last fifteen minutes, where Emilia's carefully tended immortality and composure come crashing down, I found devastating and gorgeous, but mostly on account of the music. I didn't care about Emilia one way or another. I was a bit tired of her.
Is that terrible of me? I've only found one single solitary person who felt the same away, and everybody else abjectly adored her. Maybe I was just missing something. Well, I know I was missing something; I was missing Emilia, as I've come to understand her. Not just through my Favouritest Soprano Ever, either; both Anja Silja and Elisabeth Soderstrom, for instance, have got through to me in this opera. Karita, much as I have loved her elsewhere, just did not. And I'm worried that her ability to do the splits is becoming a gimmick: it was weird enough in Manon Lescaut but thoroughly unnecessary here. If she works it into Jenufa then I'll know she's flipped her lid.
The rest of the cast did admirably for the most part. I didn't fall in love with any of them but didn't dislike any of them either. Miro Dvorsky was an affable sort of Gregor, Susannah Biller a sweet, gawky Krista and Gerd Grochowski a suitably patrician Baron Prus. And of course Matthew O'Neill did what I'm sure all tenors singing Hauk-Sendorf do, and briefly stole the show. Hard not to with that first mad scene of his.
I didn't even have San Francisco in mind when I headed to LA, let alone Janacek, so as itinerary bonuses go, this was a pretty excellent one. I mean, a night with Emilia Marty is always a pleasure, even when she's not my favouritest ever. This opera is probably not the most obvious to fall in love with, and yet love it I do. And even an underwhelming Karita Mattila still beats a poke in the eye with a blunt stick by miles. So while I can't quite fathom the ecstatic praise which was heaped upon this show, I'm still very very pleased we went.