Bohuslav MARTINŮ (1890-1959) Julietta (1938) [150.21]
Kurt Streit, tenor – Michel; Juanita Lascarro, soprano – Julietta; Beau Gibson, tenor – Postman, Forester, Engine driver; Boris Grappe, baritone – Man with the helmet, Old Man Youth, Souvenir seller, Beggar; Andreas Bauer, bass – Man in the window, Convict ; Nina Tarandek, mezzo-soprano – Small Arab, 1st Gentleman, Young sailor, Errand boy; Magnus Balvinsson, bass – Old Arab, Grandfather, Old sailor; Marta Herman, mezzo-soprano – Bird-seller, 2nd Gentleman; Maria Pantiukhova, mezzo-soprano – Fishmonger, 3rd Gentleman, Fortune-teller; Michael McCown, bass – Old sailor, Nightwatchman; Frankfurt Opera and Museum Orchestra/Sebastian Weigle
rec. live, June and July 2014, Frankfurt Opera OEHMS CLASSICS OC966 [74.52 + 75.29]
This set comes into direct competition with the old Supraphon recording conducted by Jaroslav Krombholc which was originally issued on LP as long ago as 1964 and subsequently reissued initially on three CDs and then remastered onto two. Or it would come into direct competition with that set, were it not for the fact that the latter seems to have disappeared from the current listings on Archiv (although copies are shown as still available at the original price from Amazon, and the two-disc transfer remains cheaper there than this new Oehms release). But there is another major difference between the Supraphon and Oehms sets: the new recording is given in a German translation rather than either the Czech of the original performances or the French of the play on which Martinů based his libretto. Although the booklet essay (in parallel English and German texts) extends for some twenty pages, at no point is any attempt made to justify the fact of this translation, although surely in this day and age there should be no problem in finding singers conversant with the Czech language. Nor are we given the libretto in any language other than German; the three-CD Supraphon set supplied not only the original Czech of the performance but translations into German, English and French (I have not been able to discover whether this booklet material also was included in the two-disc remastered set).
Those of us who, like myself, first encountered Julietta in Sir Charles Mackerras’s English-language performances in London in the 1970s, will need no recommendation to renew their acquaintance with the opera. Indeed when I later purchased the Supraphon recording, I was distinctly underwhelmed by the sound of the discs which lacked the ebullient richness of sound which Mackerras had conjured up from the pit – most notably in the swinging string theme of the Second Act Prelude. The Mackerras performances also benefited from the presence of a number of ENO stalwarts in the supporting cast, such as Sarah Walker as an inimitably pushy Fortune-teller, Phyllis Cannan as the Third Gentleman, Kenneth Woollam as the Engine driver and Christian du Plessis as the Souvenir seller; neither this new set nor the old Supraphon offer anything like such luxurious singing in these roles. (Unlike the Supraphon set, this new Frankfurt production doubles many of the minor roles, and the credits for some of those which were separately listed in the Supraphon booklet and ENO programme appear to have gone missing.)
The sound of the orchestra as recorded here is no richer than it was over sixty years ago for Supraphon. The violins in the Second Act Prelude (CD1, track 14) are relegated to the background by the busy wind figurations that surrounds them; and although the clarity of the orchestra is a distinct advantage, the resulting sounds remain less than ideal. Sebastian Weigle’s conducting is idiomatic. The two principal singers come from decidedly different generations; Kurt Streit as Michel, the central character who retains his memories when all around him are losing theirs, sounds distinctly older than did either Stuart Kale for Mackerras or Ivo Žídek for Krombholc. The part of Julietta, the girl whom Marcel loves but who persistently forgets him, is comparatively peripheral in the opera despite giving her name to it; and although Juanita Lascarro is firmer of tone and more convincingly naïve than Krombholc’s Maria Tauberová, the advantage is not overwhelming. Of the many supporting roles, some are more convincingly taken than others; and although the absence of Slavonic wobbles (especially from the mezzos) constitutes a decided advantage over the Czech set, the German translation does not sound ideally idiomatic. Nor does it draw the ready laughter from the audience that one might surely expect at appropriate places, as did the English text in the theatre.
The issue of the opera on two CDs clearly means that there has to be a break in Act Two, and that chosen here is fine in the context of such an episodic score. The booklet notes are comprehensive and readable. The synopsis and biographies are given in parallel texts in German and English, but there are no notes in French or any other language (including Czech); as I have stated, the text is given in German only. There are copious pictures of the production, which seems to be no more outrageous than the text would justify, and those attending the performances would seem to have been rewarded with plenty of comedy if they had allowed themselves to be enchanted by this beautiful score, a “world of dreams” indeed.
It may be gathered from the foregoing that I find this new Oehms recording disappointing. It is not the urgently needed substitute in modern sound for the Supraphon. There remains a vacancy for a new reading in the original language. Failing this, might one ask that Chandos might consider adding it to a new generation of their ‘Opera in English’ series; the BBC broadcast of the Mackerras performance still sounds fine (in my own home taping) if somewhat blurred around the edges. Doubtless the quality could be improved upon from a better source. In the end, for those who still recall the ENO performances with affection, the old Supraphon set in the original language must be regarded as the best recommendation despite its drawbacks, if a copy can be procured.