Julietta, English National Opera, ENO, London Coliseum, September 2012

Dreams or Reality? For Michel, a bookseller from Paris, there is something addictive about dreams, but in the first two acts the auditorium lights slowly come on at the end, as if he is waking up. When the third act nears its conclusion the lighting shows some promise of doing the same again, but it suddenly goes dark and Michel is trapped for ever. This clever idea is just part of Richard Jones’s excellent new production of Martinů’s opera.

All images ENO/ Richard Hubert Smith

Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů left his homeland for Paris in 1923 and during his many years there he found Georges Neveux’s recent play Juliette, ou La clé des songes (the key of dreams) a fine subject for opera. He wrote the libretto himself, initially in French then in Czech, and it was first performed in Prague in 1938.

Michel and Julietta

The main protagonist Michel yearns to find a girl named Julietta, and he revisits the small coastal town where he once heard her singing at an open window. The inhabitants seem to live only in the present without memory of the past, and when Michel encounters a fortune teller he finds she doesn’t read the future, only the past … and can also read dreams. Nothing however is quite as it seems, and though Michel shoots Julietta it turns out later she is still alive and there is not a drop of blood.

Surreal it certainly is, and the music is intriguing. Severely spare at times, yet suddenly swelling into glorious melody, particularly in Act II, which is nearly as long as the other two half-hour acts combined. We are swayed and seduced by the harmonies, taken away into dreams, memories and hallucinations, and Edward Gardner in the orchestra pit succeeds brilliantly in bringing out the mystery and charm of this music.

Peter Hoare was outstanding as Michel, with Julia Sporsén giving a fine portrayal of Julietta. Andrew Shore was excellent as the man in a helmet, plus two other roles, and the other soloists, such as Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts and Susan Bickley, all did well and took on multiple roles. An abundance of roles helps advance the action by exchanges between a constantly changing sequence of individuals, avoiding the need for extended vocal solos or big arias, despite the lyrical nature of the music.

The Central Bureau of Dreams

Huge designs by Antony McDonald, helped by Matthew Richardson’s excellent lighting, give a sense of irreality to Michel and the strange people he encounters, and the staging and wonderful conducting make this a compelling evening. Edward Gardner and director Richard Jones have scored another great success for the ENO.

Performances continue until October 3 — for details click here.

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