Martinů’s Juliette

Juliette – Lyric opera in three acts to a libretto by the composer after the play by Georges Neveux [UK premiere of the ‘urtext edition’ edited by Aleš Březina, incorporating the composer’s revised French text as edited by Harry Halbreich]

Michel – William Burden
Juliette – Magdalena Kožená
Man in Hat / Seller of Memories / Blind Beggar / Nightwatchman – Roderick Williams
Man in Chapska / Father Youth / Convict – Frédéric Goncalvés
Police Chief / Postman / Clerk – Andreas Jäggi
Fish-Seller / Grandmother / Old Lady – Jean Rigby
Bird-Seller / Fortune-Teller – Rosalind Plowright
Old Arab / Old Sailor – Zdeněk Plech
Little Arab / Bellhop – Anna Stéphany

BBC Singers

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Jiří Bělohlávek

Kenneth Richardson – Concert staging

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 27 March, 2009
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Jiří BělohlávekThe fiftieth anniversary of Bohuslav Martinů’s death will doubtless see a number of timely revivals, but none as significant as that of the opera “Juliette” – the central work of his output, towards which his music of the previous two decades had been leading and which determined much of that from the two that followed: the key to Martinů, indeed, as much as ‘The Key to Dreams’ which is the opera’s subtitle.

“Juliette” has been described as a ‘surrealist opera’, yet it is worth remembering that Surrealism had been crucial to the composer’s thinking since his arrival in Paris some 13 years before he began work on the opera in 1936. That aesthetic dominates his operas and ballets from the period – its influence channelled via his renewed interest in Czech folk-music and adoption of the prevailing neo-classicism to be combined here with a psychological grounding of personal, if not autobiographical significance. A synthesis as unmistakable as it is intangible and reinforced by an idiom as easy to identify as it is impossible to emulate: witness those who have striven to absorb the ‘Martinů sound’ over recent years, only to find that its elusiveness has merely pointed up the limitations of their own thinking.

Such music also pointed up the limitations of Georges Neveux’s play to its author, but then the drama (previously offered, somewhat improbably, to Kurt Weill) from which the composer adapted his own libretto is a stylish though flimsy foray into the fashionable ‘dream symbolism’ of the period whose fey humour needed Martinů’s music to assume real substance. Even then, a synopsis of the opera reveals little of what it is, still less about why its expressive currents run so deep and emerge with such impact. In essence, the first Act deals with the apprehension of a dream, the second with the doomed attempt to realise it in actuality, while the third sees the dream take on the status of a greater reality. Beyond this, it is the emotions invoked rather than the characters who invoke them that really matters, and it is in this respect that Martinů’s music comes into its own.

“Juliette” is nonetheless an opera where the quality of singing is of vital importance, and the present performance served it well. Having Magdalena Kožená in the title-role paid dividends in those few but salient passages where the voice is allowed to soar, siren-like, as a rendering of the drama’s essence – though elsewhere the part is so emotionally removed as to become (no doubt intentionally) faceless. Not that Michel is always an empathetic figure, yet he dominates the opera to the extent that he is rarely absent and thus requires a wide-ranging portrayal. William Burden rose to the task admirably – whether in the amused bemusement with which he countered the collective myopia of the harbour town where he hopes to find Juliette, the lyrical intensity brought to their meeting at a crossroads forest in one of the great love-duets malgré lui, or the stamina evinced in his increasingly desperate vigil at the ‘Central Office of Dreams’ in the final Act. As such, he maintained the dramatic continuity with conviction, while also affording a personal perspective whenever its obliqueness threatened to become abstruse.

The incidental nature of the supporting parts can be gauged from the singers’ assumption of multiple roles. Yet Jean Rigby, Rosalind Plowright and Roderick Williams were all classy casting in their varied cameos, with Anna Stéphany, Zdeněk Plech, Frédéric Goncalvès and Andreas Jäggi each entering fully into the spirit of their diverse contributions, with the BBC Singers as dependable as ever.

“Juliette”, however, is not an opera whose potential would be realised without a conductor who believes in its music and there could be no more sympathetic advocate than Jiří Bělohlávek, who caught its strangely distanced intensity almost to perfection while not neglecting its capacity either for overt humour or disarming naïveté. In particular, those passages in which the idealised image of Juliette herself yields music of a luminous depth such as was to return to repeatedly during his later years, but which is nowhere more comprehensively or more powerfully realised than in the present work.

The all-round excellence of the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s playing was abetted by the concert-staging of Kenneth Richardson – fully on a par with that for the Barbican Hall presentation of Janáček “The Excursions of Mr Brouček” two years ago. Nothing here was allowed to interfere with the course of the drama as related by its music, with the rendezvous in the forest enhanced by lighting that ‘illuminated’ the scene in question much more persuasively than a relatively elaborate stage-set could ever have done. Not produced in London for almost a quarter-century, “Juliette” may still be a long way from assuming repertoire status, but its intrinsic musical qualities are their own justification and can seldom have been more completely realised than in this performance.

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