The most remarkable feature of ENO’s new production of Martinů’s Julietta is its striking visual appearance. First seen at Palais Garnier in Paris in 2002, the production by Richard Jones and designer Antony McDonald is an arresting interpretation of the quirky, dreamlike aspect of Martinů’s conception.
The ninth of Martinů’s fifteen operas, Julietta is based on the novel Juliette ou la Clé des songes by the French writer Georges Neveux. The surrealist plot centres on Michel, a bookseller from Paris, who arrives in a seaside town in search of a beautiful girl he saw on a previous trip. He soon finds that the inhabitants have trouble remembering anything that occurred more than ten minutes previously, which leads to all sorts of strange situations. Michel eventually finds his Julietta and they arrange to meet in the forest, but their second encounter leads to an argument, which causes Julietta to run off. Michel fires a gun into the darkness and Julietta fails to return, although it’s unclear whether she has been shot. In the final act, Michel finds himself in the Bureau of Dreams, where he observes a group of men who were unable to leave their dreams behind and have become insane. Michel then hears the voice of Julietta calling to him and decides to resume his search for her. He arrives in the seaside town exactly as depicted at start of the opera.
Taking his cue from the accordion heard in Martinů’s score, Richard Jones uses a giant version of the instrument in different orientations during all the three acts. In Act II, for instance, the upper and lower keyboards frame the top and bottom of the forest with trees and stars in the distance, while in Act III the bellows are seen as the filing card system for the Bureau of Dreams. The lighting effects are beautiful, especially the nocturnal forest in Act II. Movement of the characters on and around the accordion is a key feature of the production.
Peter Hoare brings vigour and tragic desperation to his portrayal of the bemused Michel, singing with warm tone and unflagging energy throughout. The rest of Martinů’s characters, even Julietta herself, are ciphers rather than fleshed out roles. Andrew Shore nevertheless animates his three roles of Man in a Helmet, Seller of Memories and Convict, while Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts brings soulfulness to the Commissar and Clerk of the Bureau of Dreams. The role of Julietta is sensitively sung by Julia Sporsén. Emilie Renard, Gwynne Howell and Susan Bickley are also memorable in their small roles. The cast as a whole bring enormous energy to the wacky scenes in Act I and the results are very funny.
Completed in 1937, Martinů’s music for Julietta is alternately lyrical and angular, with luminous orchestral colouring. As their performance of Britten’s Peter Grimes at this summer’s Proms demonstrated, the ENO orchestra is on fine form and gave an exemplary first night performance. However, Edward Gardner’s conducting on this occasion lacked something in the richness and intensity that Martinů’s music, and the opera as a whole, needs to really make its full effect.