Friday, 20 April 2018

Martinů - Julietta (Prague, 2017)

Bohuslav Martinů - Julietta

National Theatre Prague, 2017

Jaroslav Kyzlink, Zuzana Gilhuus, Alžběta Poláčková, Peter Berger, Ondřej Koplík, Petr Levíček, Yevhen Shokalo, Michaela Zajmi, Stanislava Jirků, Jiří Hájek 

OperaVision - April 2018

It seems only a natural reaction to want to interpret, psychoanalyse or just try to make sense of a work that operates on the level of abstraction, surrealism, symbolism or dream logic. And, to be fair, when it comes to works from the former Czechoslovakia or any nation behind the former Iron Curtain, such an approach has some validity, since it has often been a means for artists to depict a reality that is difficult to describe in any other way, not least because of the fear of censorship, arrest and imprisonment. Bohuslav Martinů's Julietta (The Key to Dreams) however predates the worst horrors of WWII and the post-war Communist years, and it certainly seems to operate on a much simpler level, but that doesn't mean that it is entirely detached from describing another reality.

That reality, rather than having a political undercurrent - although I'm sure such an interpretation could be applied - would seem to be more in the realm of exploring the rather abstract human emotions and behaviours associated with memory, desire and perhaps other less easily defined sensations. Martinů based his opera on a play by French writer Georges Neveux and there are good antecedents for putting such abstractions to a musical treatment, not least in Wagner's Tristan und Isolde but more obviously in the approach taken by Debussy in his musical setting of Maeterlinck's Pelléas et Mélisande. Closer to home, Janáček ponders some basic human questions related to time, existence and memory in the science-fictional unreality of The Makropulos Case. Martinů's Julietta finds it own language to describe its world, and - unlike Maeterlinck - Neveux, who attended the 1938 premiere, reportedly found Martinů's adaptation better than the original.

You could certainly apply some kind of commentary on a nation and authority to the little seaside town where Parisian bookseller Michel Lepic turns up, a town where the citizens have no memory of the past, are unable to recall anything more than 10 minutes ago and seem to even have no awareness of basic things. In such a place there are people willing to tell fortunes and sell memories of invented histories that serve to pacify and keep the people happy. Since Michel seems better equipped with knowledge and memory - he can even remember a toy duck from as far back as his childhood - the town's Commissar confers on him the office of town captain, giving him a hat (authority), a parrot (law) and a gun (enforcement).

The problem with trying to apply any kind of basis in reality to Julietta is that the dream logic basis of the story means that there's a constant shift of meaning and emphasis. Michel's role as captain is short-lived since even the Commissar isn't able to remember appointing him a short time later when he reappears as a postman. The gun too is somewhat illusory; fired by Michel in the woods even though he doesn't remember firing it, a watchman in the woods later says that it was he who fired at a duck. The principal thread that runs through the opera however is of course Michel's search for the mysterious woman he heard singing from a window on his last visit to the town three years ago, Julietta, an object of desire that has continued to haunt him. 

On that basis the subject of the opera is much more playful in its exploration of the nature of human desire and memory, on idealisation and reality. Michel has created a figure in his head based on what to him has been a magical encounter, but for Julietta it was just an everyday event that has made no impact on her, and even what she does remember of it seems to her ridiculous. She has her own memories created for her by a seller of memories and prefers them to the reality. Act III brings a twist to proceedings when it is revealed that Michel's dream is indeed just a dream. At the Bureau of Dreams he discovers that there's a 'Julietta' in dreams of many others - a beggar, a messenger, a convict, an engineer - and it's a necessary escape from the boundaries of their earthly misery. The Parisian bookseller decides he wants to remain there. 

Again, there are ways of viewing that as some kind of political allegory, but if you want to apply an allegory to the work you'd need to do that yourself as Zuzana Gilhuus's direction for National Theatre Prague's production, celebrating 80 years since the opera was first performed there, treats Julietta merely as a dream fantasy. There's nothing wrong with that as there is more than enough in those abstract themes to make this a fascinating and entertaining work, particularly with the rich and playful score that Martinů has written. It's immensely varied in tones and styles, from full orchestration to express the dramatic situations to more intimate piano accompaniment and even unaccompanied spoken sections. 

The production takes advantage of the opportunities the opera presents to create a simple but effective dream world set. The townspeople are dressed all in white, in rather old-fashioned clothes of people living in the past (without a past), wiped clean of memories, in a certain respect free and pure but unable to see beyond their limited horizons (I'm still trying to apply an allegorical meaning!). The town in Act I is viewed only in the abstract as a maze or forest of low white trees bare of any leaves placed on a white illuminated platform. This is moved around and turned on its side for Act II in the forest and in the Bureau of Dreams. It's a fairly open abstract production that serves the music well and Jaroslav Kyzlink's conducting brings them together well for the varied tones of the work. 

Links: National Theatre Prague, OperaVision