Tuesday 18 September 2012

Julietta, English National Opera, 17 September 2012

(sung in English)


Julietta – Julia Sporsén
Michel – Peter Hoare
Clerk in the Bureau of Dreams – Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts
Man in a Helmet/Seller of Memories/Convict – Andrew Shore
Man at 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
Young Sailor – Anthony Gregory
Second Gentleman – Clare Presland
Third Gentleman – Samantha Price

Richard Jones (director)
Antony McDonald (designs)
Ricardo Pardo (associate set designs)
Matthew Richardson (lighting)
Philippe Giraudeau (choreography)

Chorus of the English National Opera (chorus master: Martin Fitzpatrick)
Orchestra of the English National Opera
Edward Gardner (conductor)
Images: Richard Hubert Smith
The Chorus

Julietta (or Snář, ‘The Dream-Book’) was based by Bohuslav Martinů on Georges Neveux’s play Juliette, ou La clé des songes. An initial French setting was discarded in favour of Czech, though this being ENO, the opera was of course performed in English, David Pountney providing a translation, which on several occasions quite mystifyingly confused singular and plural pronouns. (Julietta has been performed before at the Coliseum, the first English production having been given by the New Opera Company in association with ENO, conducted by Charles Mackerras.)  Michel, a Parisian bookseller, is searching for Julietta, her voice having attracted him since his previous visit three years before to the coastal town in which the action takes place. It quickly becomes clear to him and us that none of the townsfolk has a memory extending beyond a few minutes; Michel’s ability to remember sets him above them. A contrast is constructed between Julietta’s world of fantasy – she wants to hear of a past that never happened, in which she and Michel were lovers – and Michel’s world of reality. Having shot her upon her flight from a forest meeting, Michel is advised at the ‘Central Office of Dreams’ (!) that he has been dreaming and resolves to escape. However, hearing Julietta’s voice, he follows what seems to have been the route of other dreamers he has met at the office and return to her.  The opening setting returns, in contrast to the end of Neveux’s play – and the original French version – in which Michel remained uncertain as to whether to return to the world of dreams.
Michel (Peter Hoare)

That, I am afraid, makes the opera sound considerably more interesting than it is. Surrealism dates, of course, and tends to lend itself best to something snappier: a song, perhaps, or even a song-cycle, something more filmic, or a visual artwork (if ‘snappy’ may be stretched that far). This three-act opera dragged, the composer’s attempts at soaring lyricism remaining stubbornly earthbound. That is doubtless partly a matter of the subject matter: it is difficult to care about such ‘characters’ and their wearying silliness. However, whatever Martinů’s devotees may protest, I think it is also a matter of  the composer’s music itself. There is a great deal of his music I have not heard, an important proviso, yet everything I have has seemed similarly anonymous, its manifold derivations failing to cohere into a greater whole. What sounds most interesting, or rather least uninteresting, here are the passages that sound a little like (very) watered-down Janáček. Attempts to signal (relative) modernity by parading hand-me-downs from Stravinsky and Prokofiev fall flat. There is certainly compositional craft in the orchestration, and interest in the considerable use to which the piano is put, but so what, if there is nothing to say? To complain about an artwork being derivative is doubtless indicative of a post-Romantic world-view; well, so much the better for (post-)Romanticism.

Michel and Julietta (Julia Sporsén)
The music seemed well performed. If there were times when I could imagine Edward Gardner having exerted a tighter grip on proceedings, his direction was alert enough, though the orchestra sounded a little tired during the third act. Julia Sporsén proved as radiant as one could have any right to expect as Julietta, even if it were difficult not to wish that she were singing Janáček or something else more worthwhile. Peter Hoare did his best with what must be the tiring role of Michel, imparting as much credibility as the work would permit. The rest of the cast all performed creditably, often more than that. Susan Bickley offering luxury casting in the small roles of birdseller, fortune teller, and old woman, Andrew Shore likewise in three small roles, perhaps most notably the seller of memories who tries to convince Julietta and Michel that they holidayed together in Spain. I was especially impressed by Anthony Gregory’s lyrical tenor as the Young Sailor, who asks Michel for Julietta’s shawl – here, it seemed, more of a scarf: whether staging or translation erred, I cannot say – so as to compete with his elder colleague. Again, I hope I shall hear him more gainfully employed elsewhere.

The work in its general surrealist plotline might have been written to play to Richard Jones’s strengths. The designs (Antony McDonald and Ricardo Pardo) were arresting, deriving from imaginative use of a giant accordion, whose music we hear at the opening. Yet in the absence of anything to care about, we were left, hardly surprisingly, with a series of stylish images. First seen in Paris ten years ago, Jones’s production has now made it to London. Let us hope that he and a talented cast will next be offered something more substantial to which to apply themselves. There is a host of works that languish unperformed or under-performed; Martinů has had his chance.