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CD Button Šaturová; Lasri, Nagy, Anderzhanov, Faveyts; Aalto-Theater Essen Choir soloists; Essen Philharmonic, Netopil. Libretto and translation. Supraphon SU4205-2

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BOHUSLAV MARTINŮ is among the most important twentieth-century opera composers whose works remain unknown to North Americans. A few conservatories and smaller troupes have undertaken some of his fourteen incredibly varied operas, but almost no major companies or even festivals have touched them. The two reviewed here both derive from original dramas by Georges Neveux (1900–82). Martinů wrote Ariane, a one-act “lyric opera” from 1958, in part to let off steam from work on the stark, Kazantzakis-fueled Greek Passion. The composer himself fashioned the concisely poetic libretto after Neveux’s 1943 play Le Voyage de Thésée, a brief, Surrealist retelling of Ariadne’s aiding the insufficiently grateful Theseus to defeat the Minotaur. 

Ariane’s structure recalls short, pre-Baroque operas: labeled a comedy despite Ariane’s final abandonment, the work has three “tableaux” buffered by three sinfonias in upbeat neoclassical style. The harmonically interesting score is frequently percussive, with piano, glockenspiel and drums alternating with airier strings and harps to form a graceful whole. First performed posthumously at Gelsenkirchen in March 1961, it deserves wider performance, which this highly satisfying, well-engineered 2015 Essen Philharmonic performance under Tomás Netopil may foster.

The five soloists are of different nationalities (Slovak, Romanian-born Hungarian, Kazakh, Moroccan and Flemish), but all cope decently with the Gallic idiom. Unsurprisingly, Rabat-born, Paris-trained tenor Abdellah Lasri (a fine singer who opens the show as a Guard and also sings Thésée’s doomed Athenian comrade, Bouroun) and Belgian bass Tijl Faveyts (Old Man) fare best linguistically. In the title part, Simona Šaturová’s cool, clear coloratura soprano initially spreads just a bit on high, sustained notes. One wishes for clearer diction, but it’s a musically accomplished, appealing performance. Ariane has an expressive final lament that francophone coloraturas may wish to add to their arsenals. Zoltán Nagy (Thésée) wields a solid, unwavering Kavalierbariton. The Minotaur, first heard offstage, initially appears to the frightened, conflicted Thésée as his mirror image; bass Baurzhan Anderzhanov handles the brief part capably. 

The CD also includes a rhythmically alert performance by Netopil’s strong Essen forces of the composer’s Double Concerto for Strings, Piano & Timpani, written in difficult times and given its premiere in Basel in 1940. Supraphon’s helpful booklet comes with French, Czech, English and German translations of Ariane.

Julietta, first staged in 1938 at Prague’s National Theater (ND), derives from Neveux’s Juliette ou la Clé des Songes (Juliet or the Key to Dreams). It explores the borders of dream and reality—and the evanescence and ambiguousness of both desire and personality. The two-act opera, coming in at about two and a half hours, is a major work, with alternately luminous and astringent writing drawing inspiration from both Stravinsky and French Impressionist composers. The original staging deployed almost the entire ND ensemble, including such luminaries as Marie Veselá—the original Kát’a Kabanová—in the small part of the Grandmother. Subsequent productions have usually had many singers take on multiple roles, as is the case here.

Ideally, Julietta is best heard in Czech or French; a complete recording in the latter language would be most welcome, and Supraphon’s persuasive ND recording under Jaroslav Krombholc is now more than fifty years old. Nowhere on the packaging of Oehms’s Julietta does it state that this set—made from a series of live performances at Oper Frankfurt in June and July 2014—is in German translation. A metaphysical, almost parodically Teutonic program note fills up pages and pages of the booklet, which skimps on an English translation. 

Sebastian Weigle conducts incisively, and his cast—Oper Frankfurt house singers of many nationalities, including Austrian–American tenor Kurt Streit in the lead (Michel)—puts across clearly the anomalous-sounding German text. Streit started as a fine Mozart tenor and most recently appeared at the Met in 2009 as Skuratov in From the House of the Dead. Always a resourceful singing actor, he gives life to the reality- and memory-challenged lover, though a youthful timbre would help. Colombian soprano Juanita Lascarro sounds good as the shadowy title heroine/collective fantasy object. Particularly noteworthy among the supporting singers in multiple roles are French baritone Boris Grappe and American tenor Beau Gibson. —David Shengold 

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