A man arrives in a strange village where nothing seems quite right. The
villagers have no memories to bind them to reality, so things unfold without
sense or connection. But what is reality? The opera’s subtitle is
“The Key to Dreams”, which implies a search for meaning, whether or
not it can be unlocked.
From the orchestra emerges a lovely, haunting melody. The man thinks
he’s heard it before, connected to a vague memory - a beautiful woman ?
He’s determined to pursue the dream which seems to fade as fast as it
unfolds. The woman is Juliette, shining bright and golden, “like a star
in the firmament”.
Deeper the man goes, into a dark forest, where he meets a Seller of
Memories, who sells photographs of exotic places. The man buys into the images,
convinced that they show his past with the woman he’s searching for.
Eventually the man finds himself in The Central Office of Dreams which people
enter and leave when they sleep. On ferme! warns the nightwatchman
(who was also the Seller of Dreams). Wake or you’re forever trapped! But
Juliette is such a powerful, seductive dream that the man would rather remain
in eternal limbo than lose her.
Bohuslav Martinů’s Juliette materialized at the
Barbican, London, in a new edition of the urtext, using the French version the
composer wrote on his deathbed in 1959. He lived most of his creative life in
France, so it’s perhaps poignant that he should return to his masterpiece
in this way.
Hardly any staging was needed, for the action unfolds like a dream, utterly
adrift from rules of cause and logic. Indeed, what narrative there is lurks in
the music. The orchestral writing is densely vivid but at critical moments the
density clears and a solo instrument takes centre stage. At first, it’s
an accordion, then horn, clarinet and oboe, then a particularly evocative
melody on piano which surrounds Juliette’s entries. It’s like in
dreams where a single image comes into focus, like symbolic portent. Each time
Juliette’s music returns, impressions deepen and become frustratingly
familiar. Have we heard it before ? And where ? In dreams, the mind fixes on
details and follows their trail. Martinů uses allusions from music as
tantalizing clues. There’s a snippet from L’Histoire du
Soldat, just before the Fortune teller scatters cards. Then, a quotation
from L’Après-midi d’un Faune, evoking a mood of frustrated
love and longing. Similarly, Martinů uses off stage noises and singing.
Even when asleep, the mind hears what’s happening “outside”
so to speak. At any moment the dreamer might be woken, the dream shattered.
It’s psychologically astute, building dramatic tension into the very
fabric of the music.
Jiří Bělohlávek has a specially sensitive feel for this elusive,
mysterious music, which will come as no surprise to anyone who has heard his
Janaček or Dvořák. This performance was as good as the superlative
Excursions of Mr Brouček last year, which he conducted with the
same forces, the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Singers. This production was also
directed by Kenneth Richardson, who made such magic with the concert staging of
Mr Brouček. Richardson’s intelligent, subtle style
achieves great things by simple means. The forest, for example, is created by
light and shadow, yet feels impressively alive.
Kožená was outstanding. Visually and vocally she glowed. While all the
cast was good, she was exceptional, for Juliette is in an altogether more
exalted league than ordinary mortals. Kožená’s fees might normally
exceed the other singers fees put together, but here she was utterly worth it,
for her presence embodied all that Juliette stands for. The role is so
important that the whole opera rests on how well it is realized. Kožená
has long championed Martinů’s music, so this magnificent
performance was a great tribute.
William Burden sings Michel, the protagonist. It’s a long, demanding
role which he carries off with aplomb. Also familiar to those who loved Mr
Brouček was Zdeněk Plech, who made the relatively small role
of The Old Arab/Sailor so interesting that you wished the composer had
developed it further. Roderick Williams sang no less than four roles, including
the pivotal Seller of Memories. He acts as well as he sings, and is certainly
one of the brightest young British stars of his generation. When will he get
the profile he deserves ? Andreas Jäggi’s Clerk was suitably tense and
There are only two available recordings of Julietta, and the
classic version is nearly 50 years old. Let’s hope this performance,
which was recorded by the BBC, will make it to CD/DVD. Bělohlávek’s
recording of Mr Brouček won the Gramophone award for best Opera
in 2008, so perhaps this new Juliette will do the same.