English National Opera at the London Coliseum, September 27
Few composers divide opinion quite so inexplicably as Bohuslav Martinů, whose rare and welcome appearance at the Coliseum—the scene of Julietta’s first British performance in 1978—once again provoked quite a debate among reviewers and bloggers. Though Martinů seems to get a bad press for being a composer who ‘wrote too much’, that can hardly be held against him when it comes to Julietta, of which the authoritative Aleš Březina has said: ‘It is obvious that the composer cared more about this opera than about any other of his more than 400 works’.
As one with limited tolerance levels when it comes to surrealism, I can understand a certain reluctance to engage with a lot of 1930s larking about on stage, but that is surely no way to describe the Kafkaesque goings-on here in a work of considerable and fascinating depth. It is easy to see why the subject haunted Martinů—a composer whose personal torments always came out in his music—to the end, for the opera was bound up with his passionate and ultimately tragic affair with the young composer Vítězslava Kaprálová. This was one of the many aspects of Julietta that went unmentioned in the Martinů-expert-free-zone that was the ENO programme, but at least one of the writers pointed to the dismayingly prescient tone of this 1938 work and the imminent homelessness of a composer whose beloved Czechoslovakia was soon to be trampled over. It is very much an opera about something.
Julietta has been described as ‘an opera of dreams’; based on George Neveux’s play Juliette, ou La clé des songes, it is a work in which surrealism meets symbolism at every level, and nothing is ever quite what it seems. The plot (which everyone loses, as it were) concerns the protagonist Michel’s search for a beautiful girl whom he heard singing at a window three years earlier. Arriving back at her seaside town, he finds that all the inhabitants have lost their memory, and are unable to help. By the time he visits the third-act Central Office of Dreams, it transpires that the elusive Julietta was all a figment of his fantasy. But he is almost happy that way, and remains in dreamland so that the ‘memory’ will live on.
As to who really exists, and who doesn’t, it hardly matters: Martinů draws the listener into a dream-web of sound with a score that sometimes attains its own trance-like quality. Solo piano and accordion evoke ‘distant sounds’, but for the most part its rich orchestration reflects the Parisian ambience in which it was composed. There is also a Czech stringency, not least in the Act 2 forest evocations, which suggest the landscape of Martinů’s childhood, and indeed the work feels like something of a cross between Pelléas et Mélisande and The Makropoulos Case for its embrace of both the French and Czech soundworlds. Just as the plot remains teasingly unresolved, the musical ground is always shifting too, though the score is anchored by the repeated use of the two ‘Julietta chords’ that describe Michel’s vision. Martinů’s ravishing score—aptly described by his biographer Brian Large as ‘full of human warmth and [seeming] to be expressing the strength of human longing’—has depths beyond most of what was composed in Paris in the 1930s, and in the Coliseum’s pit Edward Gardner responded with a very poetic performance, full of musical heartache yet alert to all the wit of the piece. Conducting with conviction and power, he relished the lush textures yet always supported the singers, imbuing everything with a wonderful sense of fantasy to match the pictures on stage.
And Antony McDonald’s designs for this Richard Jones staging (first seen in Paris a decade ago) certainly played a starring role in this old-style Coliseum spectacular. Taking his cue from the accordion that adds its distinctive hue to the score, McDonald encased everything in a giant, stage-filling squeezebox, which opened up in Act 2 to reveal the forest and whose bellows doubled as the bureaucrats’ filing cabinet in Act 3. If such a strong physical structure kept the surrealist fantasy in (oxymoronic?) check, that seemed no bad thing. It was also refreshing to encounter a production by Jones—a brilliant if sometimes heartless director—that for once wasn’t trying hard to send things up, but then perhaps he recognized that the work is quite capable of doing that itself. One simple effect felt magical and profound: by putting the lights up in the closing bars of each act, Jones seemed to be ‘waking’ the entire audience from a dream.
Typically, Jones appeared more interested in the crowds—a gallery of quirky provincial characters—than in Julietta herself, but this is not one of the big title roles. Still, Julia Sporsén made her mark as the flame-haired object of Michel’s fantasy with a brightly-focused soprano. Dressed appropriately enough in pyjamas, Peter Hoare portrayed an ardent Michel, giving a verbally incisive performance (the translation was by David Pountney, who directed Opera North’s 1997 production) and disclosing a plangent, ringing tenor. ENO’s strong cast (mostly in multiple roles) included Andrew Shore, Susan Bickley, Henry Waddington and Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts; if rumours of Gwynne Howell’s retirement prove true, his warmly-projected cameos here (Old Arab, Grandfather and Old Sailor) will have represented a fine farewell. It is probably too much to hope that ENO will bring this Julietta back, but let’s not forget that Martinů’s 16 operas include another masterpiece, The Greek Passion. Even the Martinů naysayers might surprise themselves when confronted with one of the most profoundly moving 20th-century operas.