English National Opera – Martinů’s Julietta

Julietta – Opera in three acts to a libretto by the composer after Georges Neveux’s play Juliette, ou La Clé des songes [Sung in David Pountney’s English translation, with English surtitles]

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

Chorus & Orchestra of English National OperaEdward Gardner

Richard Jones – Director
Antony McDonald – Designer
Ricardo Pardo – Associate designer
Matthew Richardson – Lighting designer
Philippe Giraudeau – Movement director

Reviewed by: Mark Valencia

Reviewed: 17 September, 2012
Venue: The Coliseum, London

Julietta, ENO, September 2012. Photograph: Richard Hubert Smith“Welcome to the Office of Dreams” intones the Clerk in Act Three; but surely that’s where we’ve been all evening? Julietta (first staged in Prague in 1938), Bohuslav Martinů’s operatic companion piece to Strindberg’s A Dream Play (and, viewed retrospectively, to Christopher Nolan’s films Memento and Inception) lays its cards on the bedside table from the outset: through the prism of Georges Neveux’s source drama the composer is grappling with the interior realm of sleep – that mystery of the human condition during which, each night of our lives, an autonomous parallel existence unfolds.

Music is a powerfully suggestive medium for evoking this inner life, and the rich, sensuous colours of Martinů’s palette are used to create melodic dichotomies that are as contrary and contradictory as dreams themselves. Despite unmissable streaks of Satie, Stravinsky, Poulenc and Debussy (specifically Pelléas et Mélisande) the composer’s own fecund idiom is unmistakable. For much of the opening Act the dynamic range barely falls below forte, yet bysome alchemy Martinů succeeds in creating a mood that is both sultry and airy. The repetition of fleeting melodic fragments has a haunting potency as insistent, angular motifs pop up from the lush soundscape like flying fish. It’s the sort of score that makes you want to dive headlong into the orchestra and wallow in its voluptuousness.

Julietta, ENO, September 2012. Photograph: Richard Hubert SmithNeveux’s fantastical, errant story – whose enigmatic core foreshadows themes that his compatriot, the writer Alain Robbe-Grillet, would later explore in L’Année dernière à Marienbad – is the engine that powers Martinů’s music on its course. Michel’s dream is a quest: he must rediscover his lost love, Julietta, an elusive object of desire who may or may not exist. The dreamer finds himself in a town where memories are transient and truth is unreliable; here he locates Julietta, woos her, shoots her…

Such giddy material is meat and drink to Richard Jones, whose previous offering at this address, Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann, also dealt with collisions of reality and fantasy (in that instance alcohol-induced hallucinations). This staging of Julietta is a ten-year-old production that first saw the light of day at the Opéra de Paris; Jones’s typically inventive representation of Michel’s mad, mad world is startlingly enhanced by designer Antony McDonald’s colossal, piano-accordion-inspired sets. Jones directs with unbridled flair, his freewheeling ideas always attuned to the ebb and flow of the music and its orchestration. Some striking work from movement director Philippe Giraudeau matches the mood throughout; but then again every aspect of the production is a triumph of collaborative endeavour.

Peter Hoare as Michel & Julia Sporsén as Julietta (Julietta, ENO, September 2012). Photograph: Richard Hubert SmithThe ENO Orchestra had a field day with Martinů’s iridescent score: the musicians collectively and individually played for Edward Gardner as though they had known and loved this unfamiliar music all their lives. The opera’s many textures were lovingly crafted, with impeccable solo contributions from a range of penetrating instruments: piano, xylophone, horn, cor anglais and – inevitably perhaps for a work of French origin – an accordion.

The ENO Chorus was in notably fresh early-season voice, as were the distinguished singers who brought Neveux’s dream-townsfolk to life (no cheese-paring here, with the likes of Andrew Shore, Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts, Gwynne Howell and Susan Bickley providing the ballast). The younger singers, not least soprano Emilie Renard in her three roles and Anthony Gregory as the cross-dressing Young Sailor, all sang with a beguiling tonal quality that complemented the colours effervescing from the pit. As for Julia Sporsén as Julietta, vocally and visually the Swedish soprano radiated such vitality that Michel was bound to be smitten.

For the third season in a row it has fallen to tenor Peter Hoare to carry the weight of a radical ENO production on his shoulders. From A Dog’s Heart through The Damnation of Faust to Julietta, this ever-reliable artist has shown himself to be a singing actor of rare stamina and courage. He has never sounded better than here: his Michel, who hardly ever leaves the stage, was convincingly bewildered, vulnerable and ardent, while the ringing strength of his timbre communicated all the wakeful certainties of a sleeping man. At the end of a taxing evening Hoare sang his eloquent closing aria – one of the opera’s most lyrical passages – with sustained clarity and a vibrancy that belied the nigh-on three hours he had already spent inhabiting his character’s slumbering psyche.

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