Martinů saw the surrealist
play Juliette où La clé des songes by Georges
Neveux (1900-1983) in Paris in 1932. This was two years after
it had been written and only one year after Martinů had married
Charlotte Quenehen. The composer's interest was well and truly engaged
by this strange story with its dreamlike treatment. Following the same
pattern he had for parts of the Plays of Mary and later
for The Greek Passion (based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis;
also recorded by Supraphon in a version conducted by Charles Mackerras)
and Ariadne, Martinů wrote
his own libretto. This he did with Neveux's permission.
The oneiromantic plot defies the usual operatic conventions
combining elements which we may recognise from Debussy's Pélléas
et Mélisande, Havergal Brian's The Tigers and Delius's
A Village Romeo and Juliet. Michel
(sung by Ivo Žídek) longs for Julietta (sung by Maria Tauberová). The
'story' takes place in a world where everyone including Julietta lacks
memory, conscience or logical thought. Everything is here-and-now and
transient. There is no sense of the past among the characters ... apart,
that is, from Michel who has all the faculties conspicuously absent
from the others. It is typical that of the long dramatis personae
there is a 'Memory-dealer' - here sung by Jindřich
The mature Martinů
of the symphonies can be heard. Stravinsky is however a clear influence
- especially Petrushka. This
is evident at the start of the first two acts. The Russian's hard edges
are drizzled and misted in Martinů’s hands although in tr
4 CD2, Act II scene IX we hear a blend of The Rite of Spring and
Ravel's Rhapsodie Espagnole with the aggressive forward drive
fully engaged. The music in general has the luminosity and buoyancy
we associate with the last three symphonies. Several stretches of dialogue
are delivered spoken rather than sung. The voices of the characters
are well differentiated. From time to time an accordion saunters into
focus and fades away playing a nostalgic street tune. Stravinskian edginess
is nowhere to be heard in scene III of
Act III. Instead we have an auburn-toned long-limbed string song unusual
in Martinů. The final two scenes of Act III have that feeling of
trying to walk up a staircase that keeps moving downwards. Michael can
hear his Julietta who declares that
she is 'yours, only yours!'. When he opens the door to reach Julietta
she is not there. Židek superbly projects the torment of the unattainable
in the final scene (scene 8, tr. 5, CD3) with its harkings back to the
shudders of The Rite.
Stereo separation is well defined (CD1 tr. 2) and the
analogue technology (AAD not ADD) is smooth, strong and sharply defined.
The opera is extravagantly distributed across three
CDs when its total playing time of 144.45 could have been commodiously
placed on two discs. The advantage is that there is one disc for each
act. The tracking is laid out with one track per scene in Act I. There
are six in Act I. There are 13 scenes in Act II but these are grouped
into only four tracks and the eight scenes of Act III are in 5 tracks.
The tracks are subdivided into index points but since indexing is not
a common feature among CD players it is to be hoped that Supraphon will,
if they reissue the recording, provide a track for each scene.
The Supraphon presentation is really very good indeed.
There are colour plates of both Polička
(Martinů's birthplace) and an even rarer one of Martinů himself,
perhaps in his early fifties, with carnations(?) in the background.
It is unusual to see a colour photograph of this composer and even if
the colour is a bit livid it is a delight to have. There are
about fifteen monochrome pictures from a production of Julietta.
One slight irritant is the failure of Supraphon to list the registers
of each singer.
The booklet is in Czech, English, German and French;
similarly the libretto gives the sung Czech with the other languages
printed in three columns side by side. The 200 page booklet is very
substantial. This together with the double width case goes into a card
slip-box carrying a painting (by František Musika) of one of the opera's
original stage sets.
Before his death of stomach
cancer in Liestal, Martinů was at work with the Julietta
score trying to translate the Czech libretto back into French. This
opera meant a great deal to him and the booklet reminds us that his
final symphony (No. 6), significantly called Fantaisies Symphoniques,
quotes from Julietta.
This is not an opera for
those who must have Puccinian drama and emotion. However for those who
relate to a Delian continuum and surrealism lightened and illuminated
by Martinů's gorgeous palette and rhythmic snap this will be irresistible.
Be warned though: this is the poetic Martinů of the Fifth and Sixth
Symphonies rather than the dramatic Martinů of the Third and Fourth
See also review
by Terry Barfoot