Martinu – Juliette ou la clé des songes

ONP Bastille, Friday February 3 2006

Conductor: Jirí Belohlávek. Production: Richard Jones. Juliette: Elena Semenova. Michel: John Graham-Hall. Le Commissaire/Le Facteur/L’Employé: Andreas Jäggi. L’Homme au casque/Le Marchand de souvenirs/Le Bagnard: Paul Gay. L’Homme à la fenêtre /Le Petit Vieux / Le Mendiant: Alain Vernhes. Le Petit Arabe/Premier Monsieur/Le Chasseur: Gaële Le Roi. Le Vieil Arabe/Le Vieux Matelot: Christian Tréguier. La Marchande d’oiseaux/Le Chiromancien: Michèle Lagrange. La Marchande de poissons/La Petite Vieille/La Vieille: Dame Martine Mahé. Deuxième Monsieur: Diana Axentii. Troisième Monsieur: Marie-Thérèse Keller. Le Vieillard (Le Père «La Jeunesse»): René Schirrer. Le Jeune Matelot: Xavier Mas.

If the results of a Google search are the modern gauge of celebrity, Georges Neveu’s main claim to fame would seem to be his friendship with Martinu. His 1930 surrealist play, on which this opera is based, is a work of ideas intended to raise questions about dreams and reality, memory and forgetfulness, and the quest for love.

Though it caused a scandal in its day, it seems dated now and, in my mind, the questions it raised were different: about friendship and objectivity of artistic judgment; about operas with magnificent music that fail on account of a bad libretto; about the general success of “ideas” texts in opera and how ideas are perhaps better expressed, in the opera house, through allegory and action; and about the enduring influence on the surrealists of Apollinaire’s Les Mamelles de Tirésias, dating from 1917.

The text sits awkwardly on Martinu’s sumptuous score and seems clumsily set; and not once do we feel much involved with characters so distanced from us by “surreality”, not even Michel and his Dulcinea, Juliette.

However, this is a very fine production and I suspect it would make a great DVD. We could switch off any subtitles and largely ignore the text, and enjoy the music and singing and acting and sets. It is a team opera rather than one requiring stars, so there’s little need to single anyone out, but John Graham-Hall put in an amazing, committed performance for someone who had learnt the part in 10 days (following a last-minute cancellation) and deserves a great deal of credit for that.

Elena Semenova has one of those absolutely typical Rimsky-Korsakov soprano voices that keep The Golden Cockerel somehow always at the back of your mind. Alain Vernhes was very strongly cast in his three roles and the rest of the cast put in, as I say, an excellent team effort.

A DVD would eliminate the imbalances between the stage and the wonderful billows of sound coming from an orchestra on peak form under Jirí Belohlávek – once again, ONP management have shifted a production from the smaller Garnier to the vast Bastille, and once again you wonder why.

The stage is bare black, but filled with giant accordions (taking the cue from the man at the window and his concertina). In act one, the house-cum-hotel-cum-ship (this is a dreamlike, surrealist work, remember) is painted in grisaille on the accordion bellows that snake across the stage, with doors and windows as need be. In act two, the left-hand, “button” keyboard provides a stage apron, with the black buttons as stepping stones, while the black and white keys fly up and the bellows part to reveal a forest, then a ship.

And in act three… well, by the second intermission hunger was a reality and we were dreaming of dinner, and remembering that Bofinger’s brasserie was just across the place de la Bastille, we forgot to go back in and set out on a quest for Sauerkraut and sausages. Watch out for that DVD, though.

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