We find ourselves, inexplicably, in the Central Office of Dreams. Everything seems improbable and uncontrollable. Escape is impossible. We are condemned to a recurring, Kafka-esque world of absurdities and illogicalities that has us constantly trying to extrapolate the real from the surreal.
Such is Martinů’s Julietta, an evening’s worth of operatic recitative hatched in the artistic free-for-all that was 1930s Paris and forever condemned to sit on the edge of the repertoire. It’s a garrulous trail of half-comical, half-sinister episodes, full of false dawns and climaxes that never arrive. There is no fixed ground, no discernible thread to the Czech composer’s phantasmagorical soundscape, so that when, in the third act, the protagonist (Michel) says “I think I’m going out of my mind”, we sympathise. Is he the voice of the dream, or its victim – or both? Martinů keeps us guessing.
If you are to experience this operatic riddle in the theatre, you couldn’t want for a more intelligent or entertaining production than Richard Jones’s, first seen in Paris a decade ago and looking every bit as fresh in this English National Opera incarnation. Antony McDonald’s set consists of a giant accordion – a nostalgic instrument integral to Martinů’s score – against and across which the entire action is played. Like Martinů, Jones is less interested in Julietta, symbol of desire, than in the gallery of 1930s French provincial types who play multiple roles in Michel’s dream – all brought to life with breathtaking flair.
Aptly clad in pyjamas, Peter Hoare follows his memorable Berlioz Faust last year with a towering, unstinting performance as Michel, sung with clarion tone and acted with beguiling artlessness: he has made himself one of ENO’s indispensable artists. Julietta is sung by the sexy, charismatic, pretty-voiced Julia Sporsén, a complete stage animal (and an ENO Harewood Artist) who deserves to go far. Andrew Shore contributes another of his incomparable chameleon-like performances, utterly convincing in whatever guise he adopts, and there are telling vignettes from Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts, Emilie Renard and Gwynne Howell. Edward Gardner conducts a polished account of a notoriously difficult score, preferring its lyrical beauties to its dramatic éclat, while giving his singers the securest possible foundation.