by Steven Pisano
The conductor Leon Botstein has led the American Symphony Orchestra for more than 25 years, and has developed a reputation for championing works that have sometimes been neglected by other maestros. This past Friday at Carnegie Hall, Botstein conducted the American premiere of Bohuslav Martinu's surrealist opera Julietta, which received its world premiere in 1938 in Prague. It is based on the French play Juliette, ou La cle des songes ("The Key of Dreams") by Georges Neveaux.
Botstein strongly believes that the opera is a lost masterpiece which deserves to be a part of the modern repertory, and certainly the opera has a lot to offer. Long criticized for its "episodic" music, which jumps sometimes from style to style and at times feels a little jittery, the score actually does not seem out of place in today's contemporary music scene. So, maybe Martinu was just ahead of his time.
The basic story line concerns Michel, a bookseller from Paris who three years earlier had somewhere heard a woman's voice singing that has haunted him ever since. One day he decides to go in search of the voice, and he finds himself in a seaside town where all the people living there have lost their memories. They live perpetually in the present and have no recollection or appreciation of the past. When Michel tells a policeman that he can actually remember all the way back to his childhood--a toy duck he owned--the policeman congratulates him on his extraordinary memory and proclaims that by virtue of that memory the townspeople will make him the Captain of the town. Michel is naturally bewildered by this strange town, and only more so when some hours later Michel meets the policeman again, except now he is a mailman and he cannot remember his meeting Michel earlier or his vow to have him be the leader of the town.
Numerous comical episodes like this ensue, and at times the town seems like a mixture of the Marx Brothers and Franz Kafka. In a concert version such as this one, it was hard to imagine how this might be presented had it been staged, but one can easily picture a phantasmagoric setting for the opera to play out in.
Eventually, Michel finds the woman living in the village whose voice has haunted him for so long. Julietta is ethereal and mysterious, and Michel can never quite connect with her, though he says he loves her. Eventually, at the end of the opera, people go to the Central Bureau of Dreams to request their best fantasy. Michel is warned numerous times that he must wake up or else if he stays in his dream about Julietta, he will remain there forever, perhaps going insane, and never be able to return to the waking world again. And that is what he chooses.
Martinu's music is lovely throughout, most often a romantic wash of strings, but there are also pulsing and rhythmic sections that recall the influences of Stravinsky and Dvorak. As played by an orchestra as uniformly excellent as the American Symphony Orchestra, one can understand Botstein's case for a wider audience for this lost twentieth-century work.
The cast of singers was top-notch throughout, with tenor Aaron Blake as Michel and soprano Sara Jakubiak leading the ensemble. Other standouts included mezzo Tichina Vaughan as the Palm Reader who can only read the past and not the future, and tenor David Cangelosi as the Police Chief. The Bard Festival Chorale lent choral support in selected sections.
More photos can be found here.