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Friday 5 October 2012

Julietta at the ENO


Martinu remains a master of music whose time has still not yet come. Perhaps he will never achieve true popularity, but amongst sympathetic listeners he has his following. His profile is not as strong or quirky as his compatriot Janacek who has attained a degree of repertoire status, but he still has a very individual personality and his music rewards exploration. Part of the problem is that the sheer size of his output prevents wider dissemination: it's hard to get an overview when there are famously over 400 opus numbers, making him exceptionally prolific amongst 20th century composers. But his melodic gift, always instantly recognisable in it's Dvorakian generosity, memorability and folk inflected contours, allied with his luminous harmony and orchestration make him one of the most positive of 20th century composers. In the early career of the 20s, spiky neoclassicism is the preferred style, but this relaxes into a more lush romanticism in the 30s and 40s, which gets ever mistier and more complicated in the later symphonies, which have a peculiar aura, a chromatic haze, and buzzing restlessness which adds yet another interesting flavour to his fundamental warmth. His last few symphonies and chamber music are particular favourites for mine - the second cello sonata for instance I would rank the equal of any composed in the 20th century.

Julietta then is a departure: it is much drier and thinner than is Martinu's norm, but we are also told of his rewrites and revisions from his death bed - this was the piece about which he cared more than any other. The first thing that struck me were the clear and constant allusions to the Rite of Spring - not just in the high bassoon writing of the melodic fragment that opens the opera and keeps reappearing, but in the harmony, the orchestration, the little motivic fragments in their contour and use of intervals twist and wail just as they do in the Rite. It also shares the Rite's anti-lyricism, and psychological rawness - anti refinement, rather than anti sophistication. Folksyness is largely absent, though occasionally the familiar Martinu breaks through (usually during love scenes), with his unmistakable melodic sweep and harmonic circularity but it's only ever for a few bars, and we're back to dryness. Act I and II occur during the protagonist's sleep, and act III, only marginally less surreal, is set in the Ministry of Dreams, ostensibly existing in the real waking world, a place were people purchase dream fantasies. A dream within a dream? The music here in the 'real world' is considerably juicier, suggesting again that the dryness of the rest is a choice. We need to ask ourselves why Martinu chose to do this before dismissing the score's dessication, unappealing harshness and inconsistency of tone.

I think the key lies in the uncomfortable surrealism of the libretto - the opera isn't meant to be wacky in any way, but an exploration of the subconscious, fantasy and wish fulfilment. Dreams are only very rarely glowing landscapes and beautiful emotions (and Martinu does provide us with these things, if briefly), they are mostly fragmentary, inane, and occasionally unsettling. If they tell us anything, it is uncomfortable truths and hidden desires. Though I did enjoy Richard Jones's production visually I often thought that he was missing the point - he'd always go for a laugh when the libretto let him, rather than give a situation a more sinister or even disturbing undertone. A world in which no one can remember anyone, is a nightmarish one, not a whimsical one. That Michel chooses to remain in his fantasy, in love with his fictional lover even when he knows he's wrong is an interesting and jarring conclusion, in opera of all art forms which usually has such simple, black and white resolutions.

Still, Act I worked well, the acting and lighting choreographed to the music to a very impressive degree. The forest scene of Act II fell flatter dramatically, but Act III picked up again, at least for the first half with its army of zombie like people trying to escape life into dreams - a disturbing vision. Across the three acts, the over riding set motif was a huge accordion, which actually only appears in the libretto and music in Act I, but here each act offered a different view of it. Maybe it doesn't need to make sense logically in this of all pieces, and it certainly was one of the strongest things visually I've seen at the opera for a while, but then it could have pushed far more into the surreal and phantasmagorical, or gone much further with the perverse, bastardised logic of the libretto.

Peter Hoare did very well in the title role, leading us ably through the drama: he probably sings at least half the vocal writing in the opera - Julietta is actually a quite minor presence. There's a rough edge in the voice which didn't matter too much here, as lyricism is not what this character is about. (As an aside, in costume I thought he looked quite a lot like comedian Simon Amstel.) Julia Sporsén sung some lovely phrases as Julietta, though the vibrato is just a little wide and slow for me to honestly say that this is a beautiful voice - the ideal would surely be the creamiest lyric soprano available to reflect the wish fulfilment and fantasy that this character represents. The rest of the cast also acquitted themselves very well without anyone particularly standing out. A very good ensemble effort, and this is by no means an opera about vocal display.

I know I always complain about this, but the Coliseum's acoustics really hampered my appreciation of the often excellent orchestral playing (and I was sitting in the stalls!). In all honesty I think I couldn't tell you what kind of conductor Ed Gardner is because I've never really heard the sound that the ENO orchestra makes. His conducting seemed authoritative, but didn't have the special sparkle and energy of Macckeras' recording of excerpts - however, is this just the damp acoustics, or is it a genuine lack of focus in the playing? I want to give him the benefit of the doubt.

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