English National Opera
Dream lovers: ENO’s Julietta, with Hoare and Sporsén
© Richard Hubert Smith 2012
Of Martinů's fifteen operas, the most frequently produced in the U.K. has been Julietta (1938), though it's hardly a perennial. Julietta first turned up in a joint staging by English National Opera and the now defunct New Opera Company at the London Coliseum in 1978. Opera North presented it in Leeds in 1997. Now ENO has returned to the piece (seen Sept. 17) in a staging by Richard Jones that has already been seen in Paris and Geneva.
Julietta is a product of Martinů's lengthy period in Paris (1923–41) and sets his own (originally French) libretto, derived from a play by the surrealist writer Georges Neveux. In a small, unidentified coastal town, the Parisian bookseller Michel searches for a mysterious woman he has heard singing a love song through a window. He is quickly disoriented, however, when he discovers that the town's inhabitants have all lost their memories; their behavior toward him registers as bizarre. Finally meeting Julietta in a wood, he argues with her and shoots in her direction as she runs away, deliberately leaving uncertain the question of whether or not he has killed her. Arriving in the final act at the Central Bureau of Dreams, Michel can still hear Julietta's voice, though he cannot find her; he opts to remain in the world of dreams, endlessly searching.
What this all adds up to, beyond an extended dreamscape — the three-act piece contains nearly two hours of music — is anyone's guess; so divorced is it from everyday reality that one can only experience it as an ongoing fantasy. Martinů's score reveals a wide range of influences. There are Czech sounds (recalling Janácˇek, perhaps) in the background but also, more obviously, recollections of Debussy and Ravel, neoclassicism and Berg. Musical ideas, however, come and go, rarely staying around long enough to stick in one's head. The orchestral writing — glistening, free-ranging and often sonically delightful, containing many noticeable and attractive gestures — proves far more memorable than anything the principals or the choristers sing.
Designer Antony McDonald picked up one of those gestures — a brief but memorable intervention from a piano accordion — for the inspiration of his set design, which consisted of a giant-sized example of the instrument seen at different times from different angles. (Once again, one could ask what the significance of this visual motif actually was.) Some of Jones's slightly off-kilter directorial tics were on display: characters who were physically identical to Peter Hoare's geeky Michel walking across the footlights grinning at the audience; horn players in tuxedos transplanted from the pit to the stage.
Several ENO stalwarts made small meals of Martinů's (and Neveux's) many mysterious characters, who each put in brief, antic appearances before disappearing from the drama, often permanently. Among these were tenor Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts as Commissar, Postman and Clerk in the Bureau of Dreams; baritone Andrew Shore as Man in a Helmet, Seller of Memories and Convict; mezzo Susan Bickley as Birdseller and Fortune Teller; and veteran bass Gwynne Howell as an Old Arab, Old Sailor and Grandfather.
The two standout roles are those of Michel and the enigmatic Julietta, the latter played with red-headed contrariness by Julia Sporsén. Neither part offers a great deal in the way of lyricism, but both Hoare, in his punchy character-tenor way, and Sporsén, with the determined presence of her solid soprano, made such vocal impression as they could and were dramatically tirelessly engaged in what was a visually busy show. But the most memorable part of the evening was the orchestral contribution, overseen by ENO's versatile music director, Edward Gardner, who revealed a surprising degree of color and charm in the accompaniment to a score that felt overall nebulous and inert.
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