sat 13/07/2024

Julietta, English National Opera | reviews, news & interviews

Julietta, English National Opera

Julietta, English National Opera

Martinů's dream opera comes across with stunning clarity in a production that delivers on all fronts

Peter Hoare as Michel, caught in the giant dream-accordion of Antony McDonald's fabulous designsAll images by Richard Hubert Smith for ENO

Pick the right dream, and you just might retrieve a precious memory, even in nightmarish terrain where everyone else has lost theirs. That message seems to have been uncannily prophetic for Bohuslav Martinů, who began work on Julietta in 1936, soon to face the terrifying clean slate of a longer exile from his beloved Czechoslovakia with the onset of the Second World War.

The pity and the pain of severance are already there in this seething operatic adaptation of Georges Neveux's crammed-to-bursting dream play. Director Richard Jones holds them effortlessly in the forefront of a production that keeps the dramatic surrealism clear and strong, leaving the more labyrinthine twists and turns to a coruscating ENO Orchestra on top form under music director Edward Gardner.

A giant piano accordion dominates the stage in Antony McDonald's stunningly simple designs, differently (de)constructed for the three acts' respective town, forest and Office of Dreams. It's an apt metaphor, for the accordion tune heard minutes into the opera is a partial aide-memoire for the inhabitants of the dreamville into which Michel, Sartre-alike bookseller from Paris, has sleepwalked. Warm, nostalgic music, which in Martinů's alchemical hands has more than a hint of his native land, provides partial relief for a collective amnesia which our age recognises with some anxiety as collective Alzheimer's.

Peter Hoare as Michel and Julia Sporsen as Julietta in Richard Jones's ENO productionIn a queasy little vignette, two old people visit a bar to be comforted by a wine waiter with an imaginary past they can't remember; a lushly-scored vision of a romantic Spanish holiday that never happened takes the fancy of the chimerical Julietta and gets Michel out of a sticky situation. The flyaway absurdity of Michel's encounters is anchored only by the incandescent moment he recalls of hearing a girl's voice at a piano through an open window: the purpose of his dream-visit, crucially remembered in each act. The most chilling, stilling moment in Jones's production is when Michel's own memory begins to fail after a crisis in which he may, or may not, have shot his beloved Julietta.

The role calls for the most accomplished of singing actors, and tenor Peter Hoare, following his triumph as the man-beast Sharikov in ENO's equally disconcerting production of A Dog's Heart, follows in Philip Langridge's footsteps by matching a naturalism that makes Michel's dream horribly real with singing of infallible brilliance, subtle when need be, the text perfectly enunciated.

Verbal clarity throughout matches the off-kilter simplicity of Jones's concept, and with the aid of movement director Philippe Giraudeau, this most musically fine-tuned of directors makes sure that stylised steps constantly breaking into odd little dances inform the hard-working performances of the entire cast. A trio of mini-me Michels (Emilie Renard, Clare Presland and Samantha Price) spookily stalk the chief dreamer, at one point balletically transformed into the crocodile image Julietta has conjured to mock her idealistic suitor as the orchestra goes berserk. Julietta herself, lustrously sung by the generous Julia Sporsén (pictured with Hoare above right), is no pale idol but a slightly scary tease flipping between jerky and fluid gestures.

Crystal-clear vignettes in multiple roles come from other fine music-theatre performers, including Andrew Shore, who gets to camp it up à l'Espagnol as the seller of photographic memories, Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts as several faces of officialdom and Susan Bickley as an hysterical fortune teller who, you've guessed it, reads the past and not the future.

Scene from Act 1 of Martinu's Julietta

Above all, though, it is the orchestra which carries Martinů's unnerving fluctuation between brittle absurdity and burgeoning sincerity. Gardner keeps a tight, Stravinsky-style rein on the pastiches of the funny little quacking-duck number in Act One and the more acidulous moments of the second act's quick-changing forest kaleidoscope, a sequence whose end is impossible to predict as a number of high-point resolutions come and go. In a deliberate disjunction with the mechanics of Jones's stage action, Gardner conducts the love-music with opulent abandon and creates magic in the first two curtains, even as the lights go up to wake the audience, and by implication Michel too, from the dream (only a few were inclined to fidget).

Finally, he strikes the depths as the music underlines the last act's sinister message: those who want to live forever in their dreams are lost to life. The drop-curtain of a sleeping Michel in various positions spelling out "Julietta" returns him to sleep; he prefers to re-enact his visit to dreamland. The repeated images from Act One and the failure of the now-expected lights-up on the auditorium freeze the blood, but the orchestra simultaneously thaws it with a final benediction over a love that may be regained, if only in another world. The fusion of sound and vision is masterly, disconcerting to the last. There have been quite a few special pleadings for Julietta in recent years, not least David Pountney's cluttered but ultimately moving production for Opera North; this is the one which ought to restore the opera to its rightful place at the centre of the 20th century operatic repertoire.


Indeed, Jan: while as far as I can see no-one has had a bad word to say about Jones's production, Martinu's music splits the pundits. I've expanded on this over on my blog, if anyone's interested:

I don't disagree with anything in the review and would only add that, for me, the most outstanding aspect of the evening was Martinu's score.

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