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Martinu: Julietta cast below Chorus and Orchestra of the National Theatre, Prague cond. Jaroslav Krombholc   Supraphon 10 8176-2 (3 disc set)

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Maria Tauberová (soprano) Julietta
Ivo Zidek (tenor) Michel
Antonín Zlesák (baritone) Inspector
Véra Soukupová (mezzo soprano) Fortune teller

Chorus and Orchestra of the National Theatre, Prague cond. Jaroslav Krombholc

Martinu was one of the most prolific composers of the 20th century, working in all the main genres, including opera. He wrote fourteen operas in all, and they are well worth exploring. While The Greek Passion is more frequently performed outside the Czech Republic, it is Julietta (1938) that can lay the strongest claim to being Martinu's operatic masterpiece.

Martinu spent the majority of his career working away from his homeland. From the early 1920s he was based in Paris for nearly 20 years; then following the outbreak of war he fled to America, black-listed by the Nazis. Unwilling to return to a Communist Czechoslovakia, he spent his last years in Europe, befriended by the Swiss conductor Paul Sacher.

Julietta is based on a play by Georges Neveux, whom Martinu had encountered in Paris. The subject is exploratory: the relationship between reality, dreams and memory. Therefore the musical style is far from conventional, relying particularly on the atmosphere created by the inventive and impressive orchestral textures. Krombholc's performance from the Prague National Theatre (Prague was the city where Julietta was first performed) can be counted among Supraphon's most successful recordings, truthfully capturing the opera's sound-world in a well-balanced yet immediate perspective. This CD transfer is particularly good, bringing new life to a 1964 recording which always sounded its age on the original LPs.

The central character is the tenor Michel (splendidly sung by Ivo Zidek), who is the only character possessed of a memory. Julietta is his ideal woman, and in this performance the soprano Maria Tauberová is sympathetic both vocally and dramatically. The music has various moods and shadings of expressive intensity, because Krombholc's experienced hand guides us through the ebb and flow of tension and relaxation in a way which is wholly sympathetic to the special qualities of the score.

Although the two central characters attract most of our attention, in truth there is a long cast list and the opera demands a repertory performance rather than star singers. Therefore the Prague National Theatre was the ideal company to make a recording. Martinu's style generates some haunting music, such as when the mysterious 'Man in the Window' plays his accordion, and the musical flow allows for little formality in the way of structural breaks between recitative and aria.

The supporting booklet information is substantial and well documented, but the presentation gives the impression of being little more than a photo-reduction. The print is so small and the pages so poorly designed, that reading becomes something of a struggle. But at least a full libretto with translation is provided, and because of the often conversational nature of the opera, there is a lot of text involved. There are three acts, and each is allocated its own disc; with different editing, two well-filled discs would have been perfectly possible, and therefore so would a lower selling price. However, from most points of view, particularly as far as the performance itself is concerned, this set is highly successful and can be given an enthusiastic recommendation.


Terry Barfoot


Terry Barfoot

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