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 production. 

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 years.

- Simon Thomas

Read our survey of Martinu’s operas here