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Bohuslav Martinů Juliette, ou la clé des songes


Magdalena Kožená (mezzo-soprano): Juliette

William Burden (tenor): Michel

Roderick Williams (baritone): Man in Hat/Seller of Memories/ Blind Beggar/Nightwatchman

Anna Stéphany (mezzo-soprano): Little Arab/First Man/Bellhop

Rosalind Plowright (mezzo-soprano): Bird Seller/Fortune Teller

Zdeněk Plech (bass): Old Arab/Old Sailor

Jean Rigby (mezzo-soprano): 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-soprano): Third Man

Michael Bundy (baritone): Grandfather

Lynette Alcántara (mezzo-soprano): Young Sailor

BBC Symphony Orchestra, BBC Singers, conducted by Jiří Bělohlávek

Barbican, London, 27 March 2009

The two great Czech composers of the 20th century, Janáček and Martinů, captured the utter weirdness of the dream state with great facility and sensitivity, and Jiří Bělohlávek is proving himself a masterful interpreter of both of them. Last year, he and the BBC Symphony Orchestra gave us a superb concert performance with first-language Czech singers of Janáček’s Excursions of Mr Brouček, whose anti-hero’s drink-fuelled dreams bring him into collision with beings who are alien to him but are nevertheless emanations of his waking-hours prejudices and character flaws. Such disjunctures are of the essence when dream states are being portrayed. Dreams are not merely expressions of “normal” life that we live out while we happen to be asleep. If strange, implausible things don’t happen, you probably aren’t dreaming.

As with Janáček’s Brouček, Martinů’s Juliette avoids sliding into platitude when it comes to the portrayal of dream. Dreams are not just a creaky dramatic device to tie up loose ends. In Martinů’s libretto, based on a play by Georges Neveux, there’s no “and then he woke up and realised it had all been a dream” banality à la Tode Stadt. Michel, a travelling bookseller from Paris, arrives in a small port town he believes he had visited three years before (although it is arguable that he has never been there except in his dreams). His memories of such things as locations in the town are not shared by its inhabitants, who are irritated by his requests for directions and his assertions of local knowledge – in fact it soon becomes apparent that none of them has a memory that extends beyond the previous 10 minutes. This has an obviously deleterious effect on their personalities: they remember nothing but they avidly crave memories and wallow in and borrow or steal those of anyone that has them; they are preyed upon by the more entrepreneurial of their fellow citizens, who conduct a commerce in (false) memories; they may have periodic crises of identity – the town police chief forgets he is such and is suddenly the postman delivering three-year-old letters; some townsfolk hate music (cue a haunting solo accordion) because it hints at unattainable memories.

While still in police-chief mode this official rescues Michel from the Old Arab, who has demanded memories at knife point. If Michel can recount an early childhood memory, the police chief intones in a pompous speech, he will be appointed town captain. Michel recalls a toy duck that  went “quack-quack”, setting off a comically ecstatic chorus (these memory-lorn townsfolk are indeed unhinged) singing about “un petit canard mécanique”. Michel has no desire to be the leader of these odd, dependent people and resolves to leave by the railway station he arrived at – after all, he has real memories of friends and places elsewhere.

But there is no railway station, he is told. And, musing on the past, he recalls a beautiful woman singing a sad love song that he heard on his previous “visit” (although he is shushed – effectively advised to suppress the memory – it’s too close to home for the locals, whose constant crutch is their ersatz false memories of things outside their own environment). A piano solo ushers in the ethereal unaccompanied voice. The woman (“Juliette”) seems to recognise Michel as her long-lost lover and they converse; there is emotion there but she doesn’t seem to know precisely who he is and is uncommunicative about her own identity. The reverie is interrupted by the postman, delivering three-year-old letters – more tawdry false memories for those craving a past. Michel is distraught: “je ne rêve pas” he sings repeatedly in tragic tones, trying to hold on to what he perceives to be a real memory and a real re-encounter. Juliette returns, still uncommunicative and uncomprehending of his memories, but agrees to meet him at night in the forest.

In the dark forest, the memory-challenged and their helpers are out in strength: three partygoers (male but sung by a soprano and two mezzos) are vainly looking for the party... and for Juliette; a bar dispenses “I remember it well” reminiscence therapy and white wine to old folks; a fortune teller reads Michel’s past rather than his future (“L’avenir n’intéresse personne, monsieur,” the savant chides); and a Seller of Memories is lurking with a basket of holiday snaps from sunny Spain.

Juliette appears. Michel and the woman exchange declarations of love but she will not disclose her name and, as one of the memory-less, wants to know about their past together. Michel’s insistence on the unexciting unalloyed vérité does not satisfy her. But the Seller of Memories is at hand to furnish her with recollections of good times in Toledo and Seville. Michel won’t buy into this completely and they quarrel. A shot rings out – Juliette screams and the note is taken up by the chorus and then the woodwind followed by echoes of Rite of Spring-style sacrifice. Who fired it? – we don’t know; it’s a dream, don’t forget. Michel, in an echo of “je ne rêve pas”, insists “je n’ai pas tiré”. But it’s an indication of a disjuncture in his vision of Juliette. Two sailors he asks to look for her body find only her shawl (another item from the Memory Seller’s basket); when he is put before the “tribunal” accused of her murder he is prompted by the fortune teller to evade justice by distracting his accusers with tales of his memories of Spain. Waiting to board a ship to leave the town he hears Juliette sing again but his memory of her is blunted.

Juliette concludes in the Central Office of Dreams where Michel is waiting to be signed out of his night’s dream by the clerk. Other aspirant dreamers are passing through, making special dream requests. Michel is urged by the clerk to leave (wake up) before the office is closed by the nightwatchman. If he resists doing so he will become one of the “grey men” who roam the office corridors. Eventually, Juliette’s voice, disembodied, is heard again but she is not to be found. Michel’s choice is sealed – he will live permanently in his fantasy world. The opera ends in a full circle, with Michel back in the town of the memory-less having again enquired after the (non-existent?) Hôtel des Navigateurs.

I have described the action at some length to dispel the notion of some critics that the libretto is thin. Were it so, would that be unusual in opera? But it’s not, it’s brimful of provocative ideas – touching, ironic, farcical – that the score carries forward with great style and beauty, slipping between full orchestra and individual instruments (the evocative piano and accordion) and instrument groups (particularly woodwind). Martinů often seems to be on the verge of quotation (Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring; Debussy’s Pelléas et Melisande – in harmony and melody but also in the conversational phrasing of some of the singing; and did I hear a tiny hint of Mahler’s huntsman’s brass and of Bizet’s Carmen?) but always stays sui generis. It’s as if he is playing memory games with his listeners as well as his characters.

Jiří Bělohlávek, the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the BBC Singers were well in command of this complex tapestry, and director Kenneth Richardson’s economical semi-staging gave us just the right amount of signals as to what was going on and who was who, just as it had done with Brouček last year.

William Burden characterisation of Michel – ecstatic, despairing and downright bemused – was tirelessly clear and vibrant in a part that had him on stage most of the evening. Magdalena Kožená’s peerless singing as Juliette in a taxing role written for a soprano rather than a mezzo belied the fact that her appearances on stage were more fleeting. Rosalind Plowright was outstanding as the Bird-Seller and the trouser role of the sinister, assertive Fortune-Teller. Andreas Jäggi’s Police Chief/Postman/Clerk of the Central Office of Dreams brought out the truly French bureaucratic tetchiness that characterised the three roles. Roderick Williams was up to his usual high standard as Man in Hat/Seller of Memories/Blind Beggar/Nightwatchman, offering admirably clear sung and spoken French.

The history of Juliette, ou la clé des songes has a poignancy that tallies with the work’s own preoccupations with time, forgetfulness and loss. Martinů began work on this French-language version in April 1939, having finished the Czech original (Julietta) early in 1937. However, it was not until 1959 that he completed it as he lay fatally ill in a Swiss hospital – “the only one of my works,” he wrote to a friend at the time, “that I would like to hear again”. It was widely believed that he had not finished the revision but in 2002 a complete manuscript of the score was found among Martinů’s papers in the museum in his home town of Polička – as with the opera’s story, some sort of full circle had been achieved. This Barbican performance, 50 years after the composer’s death, was the UK première of a new “urtext edition” drawn from that 1959 manuscript. French seems to be the natural language of this work and it was clearly vital to Martinů that he complete this version.

This semi-staged account raised the bar high for any attempt at a fully staged production – intelligence, economy of means, and top-class singers in even the most minor roles look to be vital to success.

Roger Thomas