Opera Scotland

Julietta Julietta; or The Book of Dreams

Music

Bohuslav Martinů (born Polička, 8 December 1890; died Liestal, Switzerland, 28 August 1959)

Text

The composer

Source

Play Juliette, ou La clé de songes (1930) by Georges Neveux.

 

Premieres

First performance: Prague (National Theatre), 16 March 1938.

First UK performance: London (Coliseum), 5 April 1978.

First performance in Scotland: Edinburgh (King’s Theatre), 28 August 1990.

Scottish Opera premiere: N/A.

 

Background

Dvořák composed operas throughout his career in a variety of styles, from gentle comedy to historical pageant. Given that his orchestral and chamber music was extremely popular in Britain and elsewhere, it may seem surprising that so few of his operas have been performed in Britain. Julietta is based on a French surrealist drama from 1930, and is generally considered the most successful of his operas. It was composed in Paris, and its sound world takes the expected model of Janáček and sprinkles it with traces of Poulenc and Stravinsky. It is essentially a dream play in which the leading character, Michel, seems to experience a series of unconnected episodes in his visit to a French seaside town whose residents seem to have lost their memories. By the end, a sense of unease develops, as it becomes increasingly unclear whether Michel himself is remembering or imagining.

 

The first production in Britain was by the New Opera Company at the London Coliseum. The staging by the established team of Anthony Besch and John Stoddart, conducted by Charles Mackerras, was considered a great success which some critics thought would encourage more frequent performance here. Unfortunately, the Slovak staging which appeared in Edinburgh a dozen years later was less helpful, at times thoroughly obscure, at a time before supertitles were available. However the piece contains a good deal of very attractive music, even if it really is too long for its material. At least the second of the two performances was beautifully sung, particularly by the excellent lyric tenor Miroslav Švejda as Michel.

 

Main Characters

Julietta (soprano)

Michel (tenor)

Police Commissioner (tenor)

Man in helmet (baritone)

Man at window (bass)

Old Arab (bass)

 

Plot Summary

Michel, a Parisian bookseller, revisits a small seaside town after a gap of three years, drawn there by his memory of a girl he had met. After eavesdropping on one or two conversations, he realises that the locals seem to be suffering from amnesia. An argument between two shopkeepers is only calmed by the playing of an accordion, which seems to allow people to remember things, if only vaguely. Michel is attacked in the nearby hotel, and asked to tell his life story, but the policeman tells him that since everyone suffers either, like him, from partial memory loss, or from total amnesia, so all visitors are accosted in this way. The policeman now asks Michel to tell of his childhood, and when he does so, he finds that the prize for this is to be appointed mayor. He is understandably mystified, and asks to be allowed to leave – only to be told that the town is not on the railway. Such confusions continue, until at last he hears the remembered voice of Julietta singing a song. She explains that she loves him and promises to tell him what’s going on. He meets a fortune-teller who tells him of events in his past. When he meets Julietta again she has become vague and runs away. In frustration he fires his pistol at her, and then finds that the townsfolk are threatening to put him on trial and then execute him. The fortune-teller advises him to tell them a story from his youth, which has the effect of making them forget. This sequence of events continues, with Michel failing to find Julietta. The final scene is set in the office of the Seller of Dreams – various characters request dreams of one kind or another, and Michel requests a dream of Julietta. At last he decides to stay in the world, and the piece ends with a return to the opening scene of his arrival in the town.

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