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.