There is, of course, a sense of déjà vu on entering the Coliseum at the start of another season; familiar surroundings and familiar faces jostle with a keen sense of anticipation. That same sense of anticipation and déjà vu accompanies Michel, the Parisian bookseller, who enters the seaside town of Bohuslav Martinů’s opera Julietta. He seeks the girl of the title (literally, the girl of his dreams) who he spied three years earlier, singing from her window; the memory of her has haunted him ever since. The town seems to be the same, but something is different; the residents all appear to have no – or limited – capacity for memory, leading Michel to wade through a series of bizarre and frustrating encounters something akin to those met in Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland tales. To sleep, perchance to dream – at least Alice can awake from her dreams; the obsessive Michel becomes trapped in his.

Martinů was so taken by the surrealist play Juliette, ou La clé des songes (Juliette, or The Key of Dreams) by Georges Neveux that he composed Act I of his proposed operatic version and played it through to him. The French author was so impressed – ‘I was literally dazzled by it’ – that he had to reverse his decision to offer the rights to Kurt Weill. Neveux travelled to Prague for the March 1938 premiere, travelling – surreally enough – in an otherwise unoccupied sleeper train, as Hitler stepped up his threats to occupy the Sudetenland.

Anyone familiar with Martinů’s orchestral style will recognise its DNA running through the opera, even though all of his symphonies were composed after Julietta; swirling glissandos, syncopations and insistent rhythmic ostinatos were all characteristics of his compositional style, along with the use of piano obbligato, especially associated with Julietta’s music. The only one of his six symphonies not to employ the piano, ironically enough, was the Sixth ‘Fantaisies symphoniques’ in which Martinů quoted from Julietta, assuming that he would never hear his opera performed again. It was an opera of which he was inordinately fond, preparing a concert work containing three ‘fragments’ of the opera. His vocal writing, while reminding one of Janácek in its speech setting, is not unlike that of Ravel. Act II strikes me as the strongest, both musically and dramatically – lush orchestration, quite overwhelmingly beautiful – and the disturbing idea of the Seller of Memories, peddling photos, postcards and mementos to give the inhabitants of this amnesiac world a shared past.

Such a Surrealist plot would seem to be perfect fodder for director Richard Jones. His 2002 production, previously seen in Paris and Geneva, can hardly be judged as new, yet is the perfect realisation of the dreamscape created by Neveux and Martinů, yet considering the fantastical and grotesque aspects of many of his productions, this one bears few of his trademarks directorial tics – throw away your Richard Jones bingo cards! Only the scene where a clone of Michel gradually morphs into a crocodile struck a familiar chord, Jones never one to throw away the chance to employ animal masks. However, it’s all perfectly in keeping with the libretto, where Julietta seems to ridicule Michel and his crocodile skin briefcase.

Antony McDonald’s set is a giant accordion – the instrument makes a solo appearance in a haunting waltz in the first and third acts – and each act sees it from a different angle. Its wistful music seems to offer solace to the people deprived of their memories. It opens out in Act II to reveal a starlit forest (beautifully lit by Matthew Richardson), while in Act III comes something of a hybrid accordion and filing cabinet, revealing to Michel that he is at the Central Bureau of Dreams and all that’s happened has, in fact, been dreamt. Unfortunately, Jones rather gives this all away at the start of the opera, when we see a pyjama-clad Michel crawl into this dreamland. I would imagine that the Act III revelation would have had greater impact if the audience had been left in some doubt about Michel’s predicament. Apart from this, the production seemed entirely successful. It was the simplicity in Jones’ concept which struck me – centring on the accordion set and bravely using it as the main ‘prop’ too.

Martinů originally began composing the opera in French, but in translating it into Czech, found his music didn’t fit, so translated Neveux’s whole play into Czech, recomposing his opera from scratch. It was since translated back into French (from Martinů’s Czech libretto rather than Neveux’s original text) and – as Juliette – has had several performances, including a concert performance under Jirí Belohlávek at the Barbican in 2009. David Pountney’s English translation works extremely well, maintaining the surreal humour of the original.

Rarely can a title role have so little to sing, yet Julia Sporsén captivates as Julietta, catching the ambiguity behind her character. Does she really remember Michel from three years before? Why does she taunt and tease him? Does she even actually exist? Sporsén’s soprano is perhaps not as ethereal as one might ideally wish for, but she makes much of her two scenes on stage, with some impassioned singing in the duet with Michel in the woods.

The whole opera actually centres around Peter Hoare’s Michel, quite brilliantly performed and heroically sung. His bright, robust tenor rang around the Coliseum in the finale, where Michel slumbers and believes he can see and hear Julietta once again. It’s a staggering performance, as Hoare is on stage for most of the evening, a concentrated study in bewilderment and obsession. Jones’ production – and Martinů’s opera – seems to be so much more than the nature of sleep and dreams. It is something of a philosophical poem on the thin dividing line between sanity and madness and Hoare submits to the insanity of Michel’s predicament, as he tries to unlock his dream.

The supporting cast, many in multiple roles, is strong, from the sonorous Gwynne Howell, first seen as the old Arab, to Susan Bickley, vamping it up as the fortune-teller who guides Michel out of a few near misses. Andrew Shore showed his gift for humour as the Man in a Pith Helmet – great comic timing and immaculate diction – but was also unnerving as the Seller of Memories. Bright-voiced young mezzo Emilie Renard, making her ENO debut, made an excellent Young Arab, her quip about not having any legs quickly revealing the bizarre nature of Michel’s dream. Jeffrey Lloyd Roberts – the harangued clerk in the Bureau of Dreams – showed great humanity and was in good voice as the Commissar, while Henry Waddington, as the mysterious man in the window of the accordion, was firm-voiced, touching as the waiter in the forest serving up memories along with the wine.

Along with Hoare’s Michel, the real heroes were in the pit. Edward Gardner had been convinced of this opera’s merits on catching Jones’ production, quite by chance, in Paris. He clearly believes in the score and the Orchestra of English National Opera immersed itself in Martinů’s orchestration and punchy rhythms with distinction, conjuring up some dazzling sounds and adorned with some fine solo playing, especially the unnamed horn player on stage for much of the action. They fully deserved the acclaim directed at the pit at the curtain call. Martinů is still something of a rarity in the concert hall, never mind the opera house, but it would be gratifying to see more of his sixteen operas on stage here.

There is, of course, a sense of déjà vu on entering the Coliseum at the start of another season; familiar surroundings and familiar faces jostle with a keen sense of anticipation. Rarely can that anticipation have been so richly rewarded.

*****

Mark Pullinger

Opera Britannia

Photographs © Richard Hubert Smith

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