Forever Young

Czech composer Leos Janácek must have been fascinated by "bad girls." His early-20th- century opera trilogy magnifies the travails of women who violate social mores. But while the heroines in Katya Kabanova and Jenufa are sympathetic characters, the lead in Houston Grand Opera's current production, The Makropulos Case, has little to redeem her.

Adapted from playwright Karel Capek's comedy about a coldly seductive singer who is 337 years old, Makropulos is set in Prague in 1922. There we meet Emilia Marty, a decadent opera diva bored with life. During her youth in Crete, it seems, she drank a life-extending elixir invented by her father, a physician. Her singing gifts have become legendary over the many years.

Houston Grand Opera's first staging of Elijah Moshinsky's production of Makropulos drew a thin crowd on the opening night of a six-show run. The show is the second part of the trilogy that HGO is mounting, beginning with Katya Kabanova last season and concluding with the more popular Jenufa in the 2004-2005 season. The company has cast seasoned soprano Catherine Malfitano, a veteran Janácek interpreter, as the heroine in each opera. Malfitano pulls off an intriguing performance awash in the shadowy, film-noir ambience created by set designer Anthony Ward.

As the story opens, the desirable Emilia Marty is searching for more of the potion that's extending her life. When she begins asking questions about a century-old lawsuit, she leads everyone working on the case to hunt for missing evidence and, unwittingly, the secret formula.

The secret of her identity unfolds as a string of suitors flock to seduce her. In the end, while surrounded by these men and a diffident young singer named Kristina, Marty divulges that her real name is Elina Makropulos. Apparently she takes on a different alias with the initials E.M. every time she moves on to a new place. She confides that the older she gets, the emptier life her becomes. Feeling her journey is at an end, she rejects the formula and ends her life.

If Mozart's or Verdi's structured melodies have the allure of a complex cabernet, Janácek's modern music assaults the palate with the bitterness of a grappa. As in many modern operas, arias, duets and ensemble songs are nonexistent in this work. Janácek's lyricism rests inside the fleeting lines of conversation. He aimed to imitate the contours of actual speech, creating a kind of sung dialogue.

Though sounds from the orchestra pit are played down in Janácek's score, guest conductor Steven Sloane expertly draws out the naturalistic idiom from the HGO orchestra and singers. Malfitano inhabits Emilia Marty with a pleasing panorama of emotion. Her swan song -- a luscious, slow waltz -- proves stunning. It's the opera's first arialike monologue in a score filled with musical dialogue, and it's a long time coming for listeners yearning for music to hum.

Jonathan Summers, an Australian baritone, works up a smooth, lively banter as Jaroslav Prus, the baron who finds the potion Marty needs. As the lawyer Kolenaty, baritone Richard Sutliff sounds authentically skeptical of Marty's uncanny understanding of particulars of his client's lawsuit. Robert Brubaker plays the passionate litigant Albert Gregor; the tenor occasionally sounds frenetic.

HGO studio artist soprano Kristin Reiersen depicts Kristina, an aspiring singer who shrinks in Marty's presence, with fresh agility. And tenor Chad Shelton performs well as Kristina's boyfriend, who kills himself after Marty ignores him. Welsh tenor Ryland Davies lends playful humor to his rendering of Marty's aged lover, Hauk-Sendorf.

Unfortunately, Malfitano's unattractive pants outfits through most of the opera detract from her potential to exude Marty's sexual charisma. In fact, until the third act, the costumes make her look like an opera star past her prime. But judging from the singer's astonishing finale, this is far from the reality.

The Makropulos Case works at the level of a good, old-fashioned whodunit with an alluring antiheroine. In spite of Marty's inner ugliness, she wisely concludes that existing into eternity is its own kind of death.

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Cynthia Greenwood