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Bohuslav MARTINŮ (1890-1959)
Julietta (1937)
Juliette – Eva-Maria Westbroek (soprano)
Michel – Johannes Chum (tenor)
Inspector, Forest Warden, Civil Servant – Eberhard F Lorenz (tenor)
Man with Helmet, Blind Beggar – Matteo de Monti (bass)
Merchant of Memories, Blind Beggar, Man at the Window – Richard Salter (baritone)
Old Father "Youth", Old Arab, Old Man – Adalbert Waller (bass)
Old Sailor, little Arab, First Gentleman – Susanne Reinhard (mezzo)
Second Gentleman – Valentina Kutzarova (mezzo)
Third Gentleman –Astrid Monika Hofer (mezzo)
Bird Merchant – Hanna Fahlbusch-Wald (mezzo)
Old Woman, Fish merchant – Sulie Girardi (mezzo)
Old Lady, Engine Driver – Burkhard Ulrich (tenor)
Bregenz Festival Choir
The Kammerchor Moscow
Vienna Symphony Orchestra/Dietfried Bernet
rec. Festival House, Bregenz, live, July 2002
VMS MUSIC TREASURES VMS 106 [3 CDs: 47.22 + 68.32 + 37.16]

Julietta has been recorded very seldom. There was a cut version with Charles Bruck conducting in 1962 (on Chant du Monde but no longer available) but only the Supraphon from 1964 has stayed the course. One says "only" but of course this Krombholc-led performance is one of the greatest Martinů recordings ever made.[review] One is tempted to fly kites and proclaim it simply the very greatest but let’s not get sidetracked. Julietta is the composer’s operatic masterpiece and a work central to his canon. Listening again to Krombholc one understands the dilemma; it’s not an easy work to stage and a good stage run would be vital for a successful recording – I had hopes that something might come of the most recent British production but apart from a BBC broadcast nothing did. But Krombholc and his unrivalled cast are incomparable. Every voice is characterful and individualist and the recording team gave the orchestra of the National Theatre a vivid immediacy that meant that their contribution was as visceral as it must be. If you can’t hear the band in Julietta you might as well go home.

I won’t say you can’t hear the band in this new recording – it’s not true – but you might have inferred from everything I’ve said so far that this newcomer won’t detain you for too long. And that’s a pity because we need new Juliettas, new life and new blood for this work. It’s not simply an easily dusted down piece of French surrealism refracted through Martinů’s romantic longings.

Let’s get the recording into perspective. It’s a Bregenz production – and full marks to them for putting it on – and recorded complete in 2002. The cast is international and they sing in German, a perfectly sensible thing to do, though on disc one loses first syllabic stress and important hard consonants. But if you can take Osud in English you may well be able to take Julietta (Germans and Austrians retain the French form Juliette) in German.

I’m going to confine my comments to the First Act, which is something I never do normally but which is justified here because Michel, Julietta and the most important characters are introduced here and there is so much doubling of roles that almost all of the voice types are heard. The strictures I make regarding the production apply equally throughout and would make for repetitious, frankly tedious reading. Firstly there is the recording, which has not captured the orchestra with any immediacy. A recessive pit may be the problem but whatever the cause important detail is smudged. Krombholc infuses kaleidoscopic colour and almost hallucinatory rhythmic momentum in his performance but Dietfried Bernet is a much more conventional, laissez-faire kind of conductor; motor rhythms don’t kick, dance patterns don’t course, string weight is vapid.

The voices are all perfectly serviceable, well trained but uninteresting. There is a crucial lack of differentiation between voice types as well – The Fish Merchant and the Bird Merchant should have distinctive timbres but here they are generalised squally mezzos. Johannes Chum is a decent enough Michel but lacks ardour and tonal variety and he gets the Toy Memory scene all wrong, or his director and conductor have – specifically it should be sung reflectively with the anticipatory orchestral duck quacks leading into Michel’s memories. Here the band is plain soggy and there’s no relation between the living entity that is the orchestral detail and the text. The Man with the Helmet (Matteo de Monti – doubling the Blind Beggar) lacks sonorous tone – he needs some swagger about him as the Captain after all. The Michel/Julietta meeting is too hectoring. Her voice is too hard and lacks allure. She can be – needs to be – imposing but here she is a conventional and stock character. The two long final scenes lack tension and drama; too static, too lacking in colour. And what is the textual justification for Scene V’s moment when the Man at the Window starts playing his accordion but this time with crazed Schoenbergian disintegration? It should be played as it has been before, surely. It’s an indication that someone is not comfortable with the text and has interpreted the previous lines ("Away with the knife! Help! Help! Help!") as an opportunity for quasi-realism. Which, again, is all wrong.

If you want Julietta you must have Krombholc. You will then also have Maria Tauberová’s Julietta, the unique Ivo Židek’s Michel, Věra Soukupová, Jindřich Jindrák, Karel Berman, Zdeněk Otava and a whole host of magnificent voices – twenty-four in all, whilst the hard pressed Bregenz made do with twelve, doubling.

It’s best to be objective about this sort of thing, even at the risk of seeming ungracious and dismissive.

Jonathan Woolf

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