Moments of Delight in Martinů’s Julietta

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Martinů, Julietta: Soloists, Chorus & Orchestra of English National Opera/Edward Gardner (conductor),  London Coliseum, 17.9.2012 (CC)

Michel Lepic:  Peter Hoare
Julietta:  Julia Sporsén
Commissar / Postman / Clerk in the Bureau of Dreams:  Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts
Man in a Helmet / Seller of Memories / Convict:  Andrew Shore
Man a Window / Waiter / Beggar:  Henry Waddington
Little Arab / First Gentleman / Bell boy:  Emilie Renard
Old Arab / Grandfather / Old Sailor:  Gwynne Howell
Birdseller / Fortune teller / Old Woman:  Susan Bickley
Fishmonger / Grandmother:  Valerie Reid
Second Gentleman:  Clare Presland
Third Gentleman:  Samantha Price
Night Watchman:  Steven Beard
Young Sailor:  Anthony Gregory

Back in March 2009, a semi-staged performance of this opera at the Barbican (reviewed by myself on this site) alerted London to its many charms and quirks. There, the lead role was taken by Magdalena Kožená and the conductor was Jiří Bĕlohlávek, so Czech credentials were excellent (the opera was sung in French). The logical and much hoped-for step has happened, a fully staged production (albeit in English) over at St Martins’ Lane. And a truly fabulous evening it is, too.

A huge accordion, seen from a number of perspectives, forms a thread that runs through the evening. It is the sound of the accordion that can evoke memories in an opera which focuses on the very concept of memory itself. When heard at the Barbican, the multiple layers of the plot were barely hinted at. Here, in Richard Jonas’ production (originally designed for the Paris Opera and staged earlier by the Grand Theatre in Geneva) one at last gets a sense of the absurdist, fascinating heart of the piece. The lighting, too (Matthew Richardson) is remarkable invoking to perfection the dream forest-scape (with its angular, Picasso/Chagall-derived trees) where the main protagonist goes to meet his love.

The plot concerns Michel, a Parisian bookseller, who falls in love with a girl in a small coastal town, and his search for her. He overhears her singing through an open window. In this production, we initially see a succession of images of someone asleep – one of the images dismounts from its position and comes to life – this is Michel, dressed in pyjamas. Clearly the dream has begun.  The final act brings us to the Central Bureau of Dreams (after Michel shoots his lover), where the struggle between whether or not to return to “reality” is the choice faced by Michel. He opts to remain in the dreamworld.

Based on the play Juliette, ou La Clé des songes  by Georges Neveux (the opera was first composed n French and then subsequently translated into Czech), Martinů’s opera is a miracle of orchestration (he knows exactly what sound he wants to evoke and how to get it) and a compelling piece of music theatre.  Its premiere in 1938, conducted by Talich at Prague’s National Theatre, must have been quite an event. Edward Gardner confirms his stature with a reading of the highest intelligence, and the ENO orchestra plays at their considerable best.

It was interesting that Gardner chose to downplay the Stravinskian bassoon of the opening (so obvious in the Barbican account). Instead of pressing the ascerbic side of the score, it was the lyric that he highlighted; long legato melodies were a joy. Most impressive, though, was the way that the orchestra could shift, chameleon-like, at a second’s notice. Micromanagement of textures led to a succession of moments of delight, while the atmosphere of the whole seemed perfectly captured. Martinů’s score came to life in brilliant fashion. The sonic beauty of the second act, so memorably reflected by the combination of dream and fairytale in the staging, seemed to bring about the perfect marriage of sound and visuals. The outpouring when Muchel and Julietta meet was ravishing. This is what ENO is all about, and it triumphed.

Tenor Peter Hoare took the part of Michel Lepic, and shone; he has appeared previously at ENO in The Damnation of Faust, A Dog’s Heart as Sharikov and The Makropoulos Case as Gregor. He went up yet another level here, capturing Michel’s journey of puzzlement through love to final Night of the Soul in the Central Bureau in the most riveting manner imaginable. The role is demanding both vocally and physically, and Hoare rose to the challenge.

Swedish soprano Julia Sporsén’s lovely, open voice was perfectly suited for the young, beautiful Julietta. She has appeared in quite a few ENO stagings, and seems to be coming into her own. She has stage presence to spare, and her acting renders the part properly believable. There are some familiar names in the cast list that deserve mention. No surprise that Andrew Shore’s trio of characters (Man in a Helmet/Seller of Memories/Convict) came up trumps (the memory seller in particular); Susan Bickley, too, was memorable as Birdseller/Fortune Teller/Old Woman. But perhaps it was Gwynne Howell, as Old Arab/Grandfather/Old Sailor, who brought the most delight. The experience onstage was huge, and how it showed in the resultant dramatic standards.

In the trio of roles Commissar/Postman/Clerk in the Bureau of Dreams, Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts seemed totally inside each character (especially the Clerk). But the whole is far more than the sum of its parts, both the piece and the performance. I recommend it highly.

Colin Clarke