Director Richard Jones needs no prompting
to create a hallucinatory dreamworld, stuffed full of exotic characters,
fantastical situations and crocodiles. He’s done it
with many an opera but for Martinu’s Julietta he had only to
adhere to the stage directions. Based on
Georges Neveux’s absurdist play Juliette ou La clé des
songes, it’s the most surrealistic of the Czech composer’s 14 operas (if you don’t count Tears of the Knife, in which Satan rides
a bicycle and disembodied arms and legs dance together). Arguably it’s also the one most worthy of
Jones’s staging, seen previously in
Paris and Geneva, has now arrived in the UK, the first major production of a
Martinu opera in London since Covent Garden’s Greek Passion was
revived in 2004. Julietta (or rather Juliette in
the French version) was heard in concert at the Barbican a couple of years ago,
where Magdalena Kozena lent the heroine an ethereal, elusive quality. Julia Sporsén’s flaming
redhead is here more earthbound, in keeping with Jones’s vision of the work,
which is more visual than emotional, taking a snapshot of the subconscious
rather than capturing the wispy, ungraspable feeling of the dream world.
Antony McDonald’s sets are monumental,
dominated by a huge revolving accordion, which in the final act resembles an
elongated grinning skull. It’s all very
clever but somehow makes Martinu’s Central Office of Dreams too concrete, without
the mystery that was conjured up in the concert staging. Perhaps material like this can work better in
the imagination after all.
The work is as much about memory
as dreams. The central character Michel,
a Parisian travelling bookseller, finds himself in a nonsensical seaport where
all the bizarre inhabitants have lost their memory. The postman, who doubles for the local
commissar, delivers letters at least three years old, so that people can
re-capture something of their past lives.
Michel himself is chasing a memory; that of a beautiful young girl he
heard singing at a window.
Peter Hoare, so brilliant in last
season’s Heart of a Dog and Damnation of
Faust, gives another strong performance as the bewildered voyager
wafting through a world of sailors, doppelgangers and off-hand officials. An impressive ensemble of fine singers, including
Susan Bickley, Andrew Shore, Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts and the veteran Gwynne
Howell, flit in and out of Michel’s consciousness as a range of absurd ciphers.
The score, which makes great use
of unusual orchestral instruments such as piano and accordion (also featured in
a number of other Martinu operas), seems to be forever building to a climax
that never quite arrives. It’s one of
the maddening things about much of his work that he creates great tunes and never
indulges them but that’s entirely fitting for one where the object of desire is
always just out of reach.
Martinu’s music is gentler and
less voluptuous than that of his countryman Janacek but is packed with
invention and wit and in the pit Edward Gardner relishes the score’s
gorgeousness and strangeness.
It’s the second time that ENO has
hosted the opera (there was a production in the late seventies). Hopefully the company will one day give us Mirandolina,
Ariane or a new Greek Passion and lavish on
Martinu some of the attention they’ve so effectively given to Janacek in recent