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Martinů,  Juliette: (sung in French, text edited Harry Halbreich; UK premiere of Urtext edition by Aleš Březina). Soloists, BBC Singers, BBC Symphony Orchestra/Jiří Bĕlohlávek. Barbican Hall, London, 27.3. 2009 (CC)

Magdalena Kožená (mezzo) - Juliette 
William Burden (tenor)-Michel
Roderick Williams (baritone) - Man in Hat/Seller of Memories/ Blind Beggar/Nightwatchman
Anna Stéphany (mezzo)-Little Arab/First Man/Bellhop
Rosalind Plowright (mezzo)- Bird Seller/Fortune Teller
Zdeněk Plech (bass-Old Arab/Old Sailor
Jean Rigby (mezzo)-Fish Seller/Grandmother/Old Lady
Frédéric Goncalvès (bass)-Man in Chapska/Father Youth/Convict
Andreas Jäggi (tenor)-Police Chief/Postman/Clerk
Olivia Robinson (soprano)-Second Man
Margaret Cameron (mezzo)-Third Man
Michael Bundy (baritone)-Grandfather
Lynette Alcántara (mezzo)-Young Sailor

What a weekend!. London offered, on two consecutive says, the opportunity to hear two little-known operas with world-class soloists in world-class venues: first, Martinů’s Julietta at the Barbican, the subject of the current review; then, the very next night, Rossini’s Ermione over at Festival Hall.

Last year, Jiří Bělohlávek introduced his interpretation of  Janáček’s Excursions of Mr Brouček to London to much acclaim (I have heard the DG recording and can echo the positive reception). Juliette was presented as part of a reappraisal of the work of Martinů (all the symphonies will be performed next season by the BBCSO). Worthwhile knowing, too, that the Fragments from Juliette have been recorded for release on Supraphon, with Kožená and the Czech Philharmonic under Mackerras.

I am sure I was not the only one in need of a pre-concert talk for Juliette. Aleš Březina placed Martinů’s surrealist masterpiece (for such it is) in context (it was written in 1936/7) and gave a brief performance history: Premiere, National Theatre, Prague in 1938, conducted by Talich, and then no staging for two decades, until January 1959 at the Hessian State Opera, Wiesbaden. The number of performances does accelerate somewhat as we approach modern times, with Opera North 1997, Bregenz, 2002 and Paris, 2002 and 2006. And, in a magnificent example of Jungian synchronicity, this concert performance was on the same night as the first run of a staging in the National Theatre, Brno. Březina is actually the editor of the Urtext edition, which here received its UK Premiere.

The story (from Georges Neveux’s play) is truly surrealist. The opera’s subtitle is “la clé des songes” (“The Key to Dreams”). The opera is set in a dream world. What is real and what is not is the opera’s prevailing preoccupation, and, as in dreams, memory is not the substantive construct we who operate in daylight hold it to be. No-one in the mysterious town in which the character Michel finds himself seems to have any memory, or any retentive faculty to speak about – Michel asks to return to the train station he arrived at, but no-one has any knowledge of any train station at all. Michel, though, has been there before, and on that occasion he was captivated by a girl, Juliette, who was singing a sad love song. He hears the song again, and they arrange to meet at a crossroads in the forest. It is while waiting that Michel encounters a procession of strange people, including Old Father Youth, a Fortune-Teller and a Seller of Memories. The meeting with Juliette ends angrily, with gunfire. The final act is set in the departure hall of the Central Office of Dreams, wherein Michel learns it is time to go (wake up, in effect). Dream characters appear, all seemingly obsessed with Juliette. Michel cannot return to the world of daylight and consciousness, and he finds himself back in the town …

The music begins by teasingly introducing and transmuting a quote from the bassoon solo at the opening of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. The clear French Neo-Classicist tendencies of the score lend themselves to a Picasso-like patchwork distorted dream, while rippling piano accompaniments seem to conjure up an unattainable, just out of reach past. The orchestral playing was extraordinary from all departments, the score emerging as freshly-minted. All this is because of Bělohlávek, clearly. His ear for sonority is unerring in this repertoire, his ability to follow singers second to none. The moment of the shooting, of the ensuing scream and that scream’s seamless transference to orchestral woodwind was expertly managed. More, Bělohlávek understands the effect of nostalgia, and the nostalgic quotation of Juliette’s song, as an integral part of Martinů’s expressive vocabulary. The cast was incredibly strong, a fact that underlines Kožená’s excellence – she nevertheless emerged as the clear star. We saw and heard less of her than one might perhaps expect (given that the opera is named after her) but what we did receive was pure magic. Never have I heard this singer so radiant and simultaneously so charming. Her French was exemplary. Kožená was, in a nutshell, simply mesmerising.

The American tenor William Burden was an assured Michel, ensuring we sympathised with as well as laughed at his character’s (understandable) puzzlement at his position and predicament. How wonderful to see Rosalind Plowright in action again so soon after her excellent contribution to the performance of Janáček’s Osud at last year’s Proms. Here, her Bird-Seller and Fortune-Teller threatened to steal the show. In a strong cast, it seems necessary also to spotlight the excellent Anna Stéphany who took three roles. (She will represent England in this year's BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition. See her recent interview with Sue Loder Ed.) Her voice extends quite high but there is never any doubt that she possesses a gift of a burnished mezzo voice. The well-loved Roderick Williams took no less than four roles and brought each off with a scintillating combination of both vocal and dramatic characterisation.

The lighting was expertly done, particularly the evocation of the magic forest in Act II (a magic feel echoed in Martinů’s scoring). Minimal means mean maximal effect in this piece, which is essentially set in the theatre of the imagination, anyway. Kenneth Richardson, who also “staged” Brouček, realised this and worked with it to leave an indelible impression.

The concert performance was recorded by Radio 3 and will be broadcast today Tuesday, March 31 at 630pm, and therefore will also be made available for online listening; I am sure it will turn up on Opera Share as well. A variety of approaches then, to hearing this semi-staged Juliette if you missed it - so no excuses!

Colin Clarke

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