Synopsis

The Makropulos Case

Act I
At the lawyer Kolenatý’s office in Prague, Vítek, a clerk, looks through files of the century-old case of Gregor vs. Prus, which has been revived. Albert Gregor, one of the interested parties, inquires how it is going and Vítek tells him that Kolenatý hasn’t returned from the courthouse yet. Vítek’s daughter Kristina, a young singer, arrives, talking enthusiastically about Emilia Marty, a celebrated soprano with whom she has been rehearsing at the opera. To her surprise Emilia suddenly appears, shown in by Kolenatý, and asks about the Gregor case. Kolenatý explains that a hundred years ago Baron Ferdinand Josef Prus died without will or heirs. Ferdinand Gregor laid claim to his estate, saying Prus has promised it to him verbally, but Prus’s family contested this. Emilia startles Kolenatý by asserting that Ferdinand Gregor was in fact the baron’s illegitimate son by an opera singer named Ellian MacGregor, and that a will to his benefit exists—making Albert Gregor the rightful heir. She describes the document’s whereabouts in the Prus house. The disbelieving Kolenatý goes off to investigate and Emilia and Gregor are left alone. He is fascinated with her and intrigued by her revelations about his inheritance, but she brushes aside his infatuation and treats him like a child. She then tries to enlist his help in obtaining a document, written in Greek, that she feels sure will be found with the will, but doesn’t seem to know anything about it. Kolenatý returns with his adversary, the aristocratic Jaroslav Prus. The will was found where Emilia said it would be. Prus congratulates Gregor on the victory that will be his—if evidence can be found that the illegitimate Ferdinand was in fact Ferdinand Gregor. Emilia says she will provide this proof.

Act II
On stage at the opera house, a stagehand and cleaning woman discuss the success of Emilia’s performance. Prus enters in search of the singer, followed by his son, Janek, and Kristina. Emilia arrives, contemptuous of everyone—first of the shy, tongue-tied Janek, who is in love with Kristina but immediately falls under Emilia’s spell, then of Gregor, who brings her flowers that she reminds him he cannot afford. When Vítek praises her singing and compares her to La Strada, Emilia gives her disrespectful opinion of the famous diva and other long-dead singers. She goes on to make fun of Janek and Kristina when an old man, the former diplomat Hauk-Šendorf, wanders in. He talks about a long-lost lover from 50 years ago, a gypsy girl named Eugenia Montez, whom Emilia reminds him of. Having insulted everybody else, Emilia is strangely kind to the confused old man, addresses him in Spanish, and calls him by a nickname. She then sends all her admirers away, with only Prus remaining behind. He starts to question her about Ellian MacGregor, whose love letters he has found. He also tells her that on Ferdinand’s birth certificate, he is referred to not as Ferdinand Gregor but as Ferdinand Makropulos, his mother’s name being Elina Makropulos. Unless a male descendant of that name comes forward, Prus says, the estate will remain in his hands. Emilia tries to buy a sealed envelope that Prus has found with the other papers from him, but he refuses and leaves, feeling triumphant. Albert Gregor returns and desperately confesses his love to Emilia. She is indifferent to his declarations and, exhausted, falls asleep. When she awakens she finds the equally infatuated Janek standing before her. She asks him to steal the sealed envelope from his father’s house, but Prus, who has overheard the scene, sends him away. He then agrees to give Emilia the envelope if she will spend the night with him.

Act III
The following morning in Emilia’s hotel room. Prus feels cheated by her coldness as a lover but gives her the envelope, which she recognizes as genuine. A maid appears with a message that one of Prus’s servants is looking for him. Prus goes out, then returns with the devastating news that his son has killed himself out of hopeless love for Emilia. The diva’s unconcerned reaction infuriates Prus, but they are interrupted by Hauk-Šendorf, who has come to take Emilia to Spain. Surprisingly, she consents, but at that moment Gregor, Kolenatý, and Kristina enter, accompanied by a doctor who leads Hauk-Šendorf away. Kolenatý has noticed the similarity between Emilia’s autograph and the writing on a document signed “Ellian MacGregor.” He accuses her of forgery. Emilia agrees to talk to them and leaves the room to get dressed. In the meantime, the others search her belongings and find evidence of various pseudonyms, all with the initials “E.M.” Emilia returns, slightly drunk, and wearily confesses the truth: She was born Elina Makropulos in Crete more than 300 years ago. Her father, Hieronymus, was court physician to Emperor Rudolf II, who ordered him to find an elixir of life—which Makropulos was then was forced to try on his 16-year-old daughter. When the girl fell into a coma, he was imprisoned as a charlatan, but shortly afterward she recovered and escaped with the formula. Since the elixir is good only for 300 years, Emilia now needed to recover it in order to survive. At first none of those present believes her story, but little by little they realize it must be true. Exhausted by the questioning, Emilia collapses. She is ready to die and declares that life should not last too long; only for those with normal short lives can it have meaning. She offers the envelope with the formula to Kristina—who sets fire to it.