I have been hosting the blog posts of Claire Pendleton from the ENO chorus for the last month and I had a good idea about the set up and direction of Julietta and even had a sneak peek view of the set during rehearsals. But the great unknown was always the work itself. Martinů takes the dreamworld of the original play into an extreme, his composing becoming fragmented and episodic, very few of the narrative threads are followed through and much of the singing is a recitativo accompanied by pillowy (at time wondrous) music. It makes for an unsatisfactory night at the theatre if the audience is not prepared to take it at face value and allow itself to be seduced by the spare but oddly voluptuous soundworld of Julietta.
The heroine is a dream and it seems so is the possibility of a coherent narrative. This production was immaculate and the orchestral playing was tremendous. Particularly how it was customised to the sometimes too hot acoustic of the coliseum was an impressive feat. The music sounded distant and echoing at times and others the fortissimi braced the material into shape. Edward Gardner as an astute and highly theatrical conductor managed to bring out a wealth of beauty and lyricism. The woodwind passages in Act Two were truly delicious and worthy of the concert hall let alone the opera house. The singing was mostly exceptional, Peter Hoare was tremendous as the dream swept Michel and managed to take us all on a journey as he gradually starting losing himself and his own memories and retreating from reality to the uncertain world of dreams. His singing was always assured and full of spark. His Julietta was as ethereal and edgy one would wish Julia Sporsén (who was unfortunately let down by the orchestral balance on appearance in Act One) sang with an airy confidence and strong stage presence. We could surely see why she made such and impression on Michel. She made a great case for ENO’s frequent casting of singers from its own young artist programme for major parts. If she was that wonderful on opening night imagine how much she will grow through the run.
The chorus who mainly creates a reflective echoing sound through the first two acts was a great asset and established the mood set by the orchestra. And also supported Michel in his attempt to find his way through the provincial town he found himself stuck in. Also Claire did do a magisterial dash across the stage in Act Two, as mentioned in a previous blog! From the smaller parts Susan Bickley was a tremendous presence and the source of much hilarity either as the fortune-teller that talks about the past or as the old woman coming out to admonish Michel. Henry Waddington made an assured man at the window plus a dry witted waiter in the Second Act. One singer that made a distinctly bad impression on me was Emile Renard who maybe too carried away by the little arab character just oozed arrogance throughout the evening. Especially when she was out-sang as one of the three men by Clare Presland and Samantha Price. She has a lovely lyric voice but her stage presence could use a little bit of toning down.
The production by Richard Jones was well honed (after all this is the third incarnation of this production since 2002) the three differently orientated accordions created a suitably surreal and evocative setting. One slight annoyance was the flimsy construction of the instrument in Act One with the doors almost prematurely flung open on impact. I can imagine Julietta with its sparse orchestration can be a victim to a director’s whim to add extra clutter to make up for it. Jones went against the grain and allowed the music and signing ample space to breathe. His attention to physical acting paid dividends, both Hoare and Sporsén gave us a fully lived performance of great distinction.
The addition of the custom curtain design made up of white drawn sleepers in pyjamas spelling out Julietta, with Michel being the last one on the lower right was a nice touch and when it re-appeared in the end it brought the story to a circular conclusion. Another beautiful touch was the wandering french horn player in the wood of Act Two adding another surreal touch in addition to the wine waiter and a piano being “played” by Julietta on a moving platform towards the back of the stage.
Jones’ touch was light and this production deserves to be seen for its sheer ebullience and wit. Unfortunately what let it down was Martinů and his fragmented, sometimes prescriptive music that especially in Act Three felt overtly laboured. Overall I am delighted that ENO exposed us to such a repertoire rarity especially when staged with such conviction and good taste but two days later not much of the music has stayed with me. It surely was surreal and witty and a wonderful night out, but as an opera it seemed to lack that extra hook that makes it unforgettable. I may have to return to see if I will allow myself to be won over by the music 😉