Martinu’s Julietta is a curious work, one of those pieces which you are aware of and which hovers on the fringes of the opera world but which does not actually get performed very often. Opera North performed it quite a few years ago in a production by David Pountney and there was a BBC concert version at the Barbican under Jiri Belohlavek in 2009. It is one of those works which garners enthusiasm. Now ENO have imported David McVicar’s production from Paris by way of Geneva, and given it a tremendous cast. We saw it Saturday 29 September.
The action of the first two acts is puzzling and dream-like, surrealist but in a rather serious (po-faced) way, definitely lacking the wit and sparkle of Poulenc’s settings of Apollinaire. In the second act Michel and Julietta have a love scene and then quarrel and he seems to shoot her, though a body is not found. At the end of the act the woman in the house where she lived denies that Julietta ever lived there.
All becomes if not clearer then less incomprehensible in the third act. Michel is in the Bureau of Dreams and he has just finished his regular dream about Julietta. He wants to go back to find her, but the Clerk (Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts) refuses, saying he must wake up or risk being trapped for ever. Michel is desperate, and hears Julietta’s voice. He stays and the opera finishes with a reprise of the opening, with Michel joining the other members of the dream town.
Martinu’s music for this is gorgeous. He uses a relatively large orchestra complete with piano and with accordion (the sound of the accordion is the only thing that helps the inhabitants of the town recall their memories). Antony McDonald’s spectacular sets were all based on a giant accordion, with act 2 taking place inside the accordion.
The individual characters are never developed, they simply pass before us and Martinu works hard to give each of them a distinctive musical character. The result is that the first two acts pass in a pleasant dream. ENO took great care with the casting and had a team of very fine singing actors who were able to give distinctive colour and character to each, with Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts, Andrew Shore, Henry Waddington, Emilie Renard, Gwynne Howell, Susan Bickley and Valerie Reid each taking on multiple roles.
Bickely was especially memorable as the Fortune Teller in act 2 who forees the past rather than the future, and Gwynne Howell (co-incidentally born the year the opera was premiered, 1938) was immensely touching as the Grandfather with Valerie Reid’s Grandmother.
I have to confess that, I remain puzzled by the opera and my reaction to it. The action in the first two acts, with its episodic nature and dream play experiments just did not draw me in. It was only in the last act, with the production of the rationale for what has been going on, that things began to coalesce. One or two reviews of the first night commented that ENO gave the opera their best shot in a superb production and that basically the piece just does not quite work.
But I wonder. Was Jones’s production, spectacular though it was, rather too overblown; did we come out singing the sets? I kept wondering what the effect might have been like in a smaller scale production in the Grand Theatre, Leeds. The huge sets were certainly spectacular though they obviously required the two intervals to change them. I wondered whether the piece would work better played without a break. And the sets added an extra layer of playing with reality, which may or may not have been helpful.
And certainly you felt that Edward Gardner’s account of the score emphasised superficial beauty without digging deep. I felt that the work could have been more intense, edgier and frankly, more concise. It is not a long opera (less than 2 hours of music) but the performance at the ENO rather dragged and there were moments when Martinu seemed to drag his heels in delight at the moment, rather than keeping things moving. But was it Martinu dragging his heels, or Gardner?
In the title role, Peter Hoare was simply brilliant, singing with forward bright tone all evening. In Damnation of Faust he had seemed a little over parted, but he has clearly found his form. I hope to hear him in more Czech music, and perhaps in a more sympathetic production of Julietta. He projected a slightly down at heel, shaggy image for Michel, but his voice imbued him with energy. As the object of his affections, Julia Sporsen sang with similar bright, entrancing tone and was suitably captivating.
I think that Julietta is rather better, rather more entrancing than the dreamscape that ENO presented us with. And I have a horrible feeling that quite a number of people in the audience will have wondered what all the fuss was about and come away dismissing Martinu’s music.