“It would be difficult, if not impossible, to find an analogy in the history of world music to the late period of the life and art of Leoš Janáček. It is some kind of artistic ecstasy.” That was how the conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky described the decade during which the Czech genius’ greatest operas were written, among them Věc Makropulos (The Makropoulos Affair) – arguably the most interesting and debatable of all. It was to be the culmination of a unique trilogy that is unified by the theme of power and the love of a woman, yet which also extends far outside the framework of this theme with the problems it poses.
Unwilling to content himself with traditional opera libretti, the composer decided to write the text for his work himself. His choice fell on the recently staged play by Karel Čapek with its highly unusual protagonist – the dazzling and eccentric opera diva Emilia Marty, who, after taking the elixir of life (the Makropoulos formula prepared by her father the alchemist) was destined to live forever, which has lost all its attractions due to the lack of meaning and development. She has lived for three hundred years, changing her name, her place of residence and her acquaintances, yet now she returns to her homeland as the effect of the elixir is wearing off and to continue her eternal life she must drink a fresh portion…
Interestingly, Leoš Janáček’s opera was one of the first “swallows” in a series of works linked with the new and emergent philosophical trend – existentialism, which asked questions about our existence, death and the meaning of life. Čapek’s play was the composer’s answer to George Bernard Shaw’s sensational pentalogy Back to Methuselah, in which the British playwright declared that the root of all of humankind’s disasters lies in the brevity of life, which does not permit us to reign over the cultural richness of our civilisation and acquire the necessary knowledge and experience. The solution lies in extending people’s lives to the “age of Methuselah, the biblical character who lived to the age of nine hundred and sixty-nine. But Janáček, following Čapek, is against this. Endless life will hardly allow people to acquire absolute truth, although in the course of such a long life man will be satiated with his own self and will become intolerably bored with his surroundings. In his opera the Czech maestro demonstrated that all the delights of life are defined by its brevity, which lends every instance significance and uniqueness. Realising this, the heroine finds herself with the courage to decline the magic potion. Dying, she finally sees the meaning of life, and the composer gives this a wonderful transformation: the harsh, tense and uncompromising notes soften, the music becomes filled with warmth, as if “becoming human” and blooming in the beautiful and lyrical finale. And is there not here the vision of contemporary society, rich in technology to prolong life but poor in the fact that it makes this life truly dear?