Martinu: Julietta

English National Opera

Coliseum, London, 24 September 2012 2.5 stars

JuliettaAh, reality. That oh-so-difficult-to-define concept that opera has never had a good relationship with, either in or out of the opera house (verismo being the case-in-point). Luckily, English National Opera has chosen an excellent production team to deal with the intricacies - and problems - presented by Bohuslav Martinu's Julietta; an opera set in an ever-changing dreamscape of the protagonist's mind. Essentially, the opera follows the desperate wanderings of Michel, a bookseller who once visited a village and heard the rapturous voice of a woman singing a love song; of course, there is a twist: none of the inhabitants of the town can remember any event beyond the present. In other words, he is damned; trapped in the illusions of his own mind.

The music in Acts II and III is best described as atmospheric but remains within a tonal sound world; the first act was a bit more hard hitting and tonally was quite disjunct. For these reasons, perhaps its best to focus on the performance: there was some excellent singing throughout the evening, none better than from Peter Hoare, the evening's Michel. Hoare's voice is bright, pingy, and powerful; these qualities lended themselves expertly to the task of  teasing out the anxiety of one searching for something lost, a specter or dream just beyond the grasp of the senses. Of course, there were moments where he could've given a bit more volume and edge to the atmospheric phrases to reveal slightly more frustration; this would've broken up the at times overwhelming feelings of desperation that permeate the production.

Julia Sporsén, as Julietta, got off to a shaky start (to be fair, as mentioned, the first Act is musically complex and clearly difficult), but balanced her powerfully edgy sound better and better as the evening progressed. The textures of the two roles don't really match in terms of vocal weight, so the paring of Hoare with Sporsén is understandable despite the disjunction of grain between them. This chasm between the two voices surely contributed to what read in the house as a total lack of chemistry between them; perhaps it will improve with further performances.

The supporting cast was happily right on par with the leads, something even the Royal Opera struggled with last season. Jeffery Lloyd-Roberts was quite captivating in his multiple roles--the Commissar, Postman, and Clerk in the Bureau of Dreams - singing with admirable verve throughout the evening. Andrew Shore was certainly at his best as the Seller of Memories, and provided not only extremely well-placed singing but also comedic relief.

Perhaps the most entertaining performance of the evening was Susan Bickley, whose eccentric interpretation of the Fortune Teller relieved the (ever dwindling) audience of some of the emotional weight attached to the work. Henry Waddington was the Man at the Window and sang with a resolute and clarion tone, not to mention fantastic diction. Emilie Renard was quite memorable as the Little Arab: her voice rang out unexpectedly and was strong, clear, and precise.

Richard Jones and Philippe Giraudeau deserve mention for the fantastic blend of movement and action that perfectly reflected Edward Gardner's well executed tempi and expert control of the difficult music in the pit. As for the production itself, Anthony McDonald's sets left one wanting; perhaps there is just something ineffective or kitschy about a typewriter shaped skull, no matter how creative the concept may have initially seemed. To ward off a more pretentious type of criticism, however, it certainly was not "cheap trash," as one keen audience member remarked to me during the second intermission; the sets were overall integrated in a rather organic way: the accordion of Act I and the typewriter of Act III - both instruments in need of human manipulation--were fantastic metaphors for the almost puppet-like wanderings of Michel.

It is an intriguing experiment to be sure and certainly worth attending if you are fan of fine singing.

By Mike Migliore

Photos: Richard Hubert Smith