Mischa Paul Nilon
Julietta Rebecca Caine
Commissar / Postman / Forest Warden / Clerk Alan Oke
Man in helmet / Memory dealer / Grandfather youth / Blind beggar Adrian Clarke
Man with accordion / Grandfather / Convict Jonathan Best
Fortune-teller Frances McCafferty
Old Arab / Old sailor / Nightwatchman Richard Angas
Little Arab / Bellboy Debra Stuart
Grandmother Susan Lees
Birdseller / First man Pauline Thulborn
Fishmonger Claire Williams
Second man Vivienne Bailey
Third man Hazel Croft
Young sailor Justin Miles Olden
Old lady Anne-Marie Ives
Engine driver Peter Bodenham
Opera North Orchestra
Director David Pountney
Designer Stefanos Lazaridis
Costume designer Marie-Jeanne Lecca
Lighting design Davy Cuningham
Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell
Reviewed: 8 May, 2003
Venue: Theatre Royal Nottingham
This was an excellent performance of this curious tragi-comic surrealist opera premiered in Prague in 1938. This superb and beautiful production gives the work a peculiar relevance today; there is a very serious message that underlies the piece: that not paying due heed to history or the past renders the future unimportant and futile.
In outline the plot concerns a Parisian bookseller, Mischa, who arrives by train at a town he has visited before with the aim of finding a girl, Julietta, whose voice he heard from a window on his earlier visit. From the moment he arrives he is confronted by some bizarre activity on the part of the inhabitants in that they appear unusually interested in his offhand comments about his past, including the toy duck he played with as a baby. They also do not seem to have much grasp on reality, spending time ensuring they can remember numbers and colours and who and what they are. It is explained they have no memory and constantly strive to create one for themselves by collecting the memories of others and appropriating them as their own. Even the local fortune-teller has resorted to telling the past. As the plot progresses Mischa finds himself being nominated the Commander of the City, for a brief while at least, and becomes increasingly confused, frustrated and even alarmed by the topsy-turvy world he has entered – arriving by train at a place where there is no station. Is he dreaming or has he gone mad?
Eventually he tracks down Julietta, and in an evening meeting in the forest they talk of their love – or do they? She is interested in his past and uses his recollections to weave an elaborate memory of her own concerning their earlier meetings, which never happened. The more amorous he becomes talking of their future the more she retreats into her fantasy past. As he becomes angry she flees from him and he shoots her. Distressed, he goes back to the town, and prepares to leave by boat when he hears her voice again.
The final act takes place in the Ministry of dreams where the inhabitants of the town pay to experience recurrent dreams – a sort of memory substitute for them. It becomes apparent that all their dreams revolve around a woman, Julietta perhaps, and it is her voice that Mischa hears calling to him from behind one of the office doors. But when the Nightwatchman opens the door there is no-one there. He is about to leave but her voice calls him again, so he rushes back in, to resume his dream perhaps, and finds himself arriving in the town as he did at the start of the opera.
The success of any performance of this opera must depend largely on Mischa. Opera North was exceedingly lucky to have the extremely talented Paul Nilon for this part. With his excellent diction, attractive voice and considerable acting ability he is a natural for this role. He has a wonderful ability to convey frustration, anxiety and bewilderment by both vocal and physical means and you really feel for his predicament – a superb performance.
The rest of the cast, many playing several small roles, played as a true ensemble and made all their cameo appearances very telling – Jonathan Best, Alan Oke, Adrian Clarke and Frances McCafferty making very strong and witty contributions.
Rebecca Caine was an alluring and enigmatic Julietta, who in the last act was perched backstage in an evening gown next to a white grand piano, reacting in a most disturbing way to the inhabitants’ dreams of her. Truly remarkable was that so much of the text was audible and this showed in the reaction of the audience. The orchestral performance under Martin André helped enormously.
The Theatre Royal has a good acoustic, but despite the small size of the theatre the orchestra never overwhelmed the singers, yet Martinů’s original and distinctive writing was given due prominence and certainly registered. Pacing seemed exemplary. With so much to distract attention in David Pountney’s busy production and in Stefanos Lazaridis’s complicated, monumental and atmospheric set, this was a feast for all the senses. The performance played to a reasonably full house – it should have been packed.
I urge you to catch this production, one of the jewels of Opera North’s repertoire, if you can. There are two further performances on tour – in Salford at The Lowry on 16 May (0161 876 2000 Lowry) and at the Theatre Royal Newcastle on the 24th (0191 232 2061 Theatre Royal).