In this strange dream village, no-one can remember anything of the past. Nothing connects. If this is a landlocked European village, why is there a ship? Where do the Old Arab (Gwynne Howell) and Young Arab (Emilie Renard) fit in? The implication is that without memory, we're eternally adrift. It is significant that Martinů returned to Julietta at the end of his life, after decades of wandering through Europe and the United States.This gives the opera emotional depth, and is important to interpretation. As a musician, Martinů was sensitive to the power of music, where small snippets awake vast rivers of memory, so the many references to other music are deliberate. Even if some are barely more than wisps, their embedded presence is part of the meaning.
Apart from Michel himself, the characters appear in different forms, and the Three Gentlemen in Frock Coats (as described in the score) sing in unison. Even Julietta (Julia Sporsén) is illusory, and needs to create an articial past through the postcards the Seller of Memories (Andrew Shore) peddles to the unwary. Gradually Michel is drawn deeper into delusion. Who shoots Julietta? Did she, can she die? It doesn't matter. People in this cosmos have no attention span. But as an audience, we do, which is why small details count, however elusive.
The singers, even the better ones like Hoare, Shore, Howell, Susan Bickley, Henry Waddington, Emilie Renard and Jeffrey Lloyd Roberts are solid rather than haunting. Martinů 's Julietta is not easy to stage but ironically the visuals (directed by Richard Jones, designed by Antony McDonald) were far more effective than the performance. We need to see this production because it's historic, and good. But anyone who wants to hear what the opera really should sound like should stick to the recordings. Krombholc (1964) is top recommendation, Mackerras conducts only fragments. When the complete new edition, recorded by Jiří Bělohlávek in 2009 is released, that will be the one to get. I've been listening to an aircheck of the broadcast. Even on an amateur quality tape, the true spirit of Martinů 's Julietta shines through, magical and manic in turns. There have been several stagings of Martinů's operas in recent years, and of course the full symphonic cycle, but Julietta is outstanding. This ENO performance doesn't begin to reach those heights. I can't blame anyone thinking that Martinů 's Julietta is mediocre if they haven't heard what it can sound like.
A full review with cast list will appear shortly in Opera Today. Photographs by Richard Hubert Smith, courtesy ENO.