'Julietta': Dusting off a surreal opera

(Critic's Pick): NEW YORK — "Julietta,” a 1930s opera by Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu, has long been a rarity outside the composer’s homeland. One problem may be the surreal story.

'Julietta': Dusting off a surreal opera

The residents of an isolated coastal town have no memories of anything before the present moment. Whenever strangers show up, which isn’t often, they are forced to tell the townspeople their stories; appropriating someone else’s memories is at least better than having none. But, of course, those stories are soon forgotten. Then Michel, a bookseller from Paris, arrives in search of a girl he had heard singing three years earlier. Her voice has haunted him since.

The work was an auspicious success at its 1938 premiere in Prague. But, beyond its convoluted plot, the score, for all its harmonic lushness and myriad colorings, has been deemed frustratingly episodic and stylistically eclectic.

Leon Botstein, the conductor and tireless champion of overlooked works, considers “Julietta” an operatic masterpiece that at least deserves a place in the repertory. On Friday at Carnegie Hall, he made his case by leading a winning cast and the American Symphony Orchestra in a vibrant concert performance.

Martinu (1890-1959) is best known today for his orchestral works. But during his career, which took him to Paris between the two world wars and, in 1941, to the United States, he was absorbed by opera, including experimental works incorporating film. He adapted a Czech libretto for “Julietta” from a French play (subtitled “The Key of Dreams”) by Georges Neveux, who pronounced the opera superior to his play.

Given the popularity of television dramas and films steeped in phantasmagoria and creepiness, “Julietta” could fit our cultural moment. The opera’s engrossing mix of bleak humor and Kafkaesque confusion starts in the opening scene, when Michel (tenor Aaron Blake) encounters a young boy who accuses him of making things up. The stranger’s arrival soon has residents abuzz during a bustling scene at a market. A police chief, impressed with Michel’s memory, declares him the new town captain. Before long, though, the chief forgets this pronouncement, as well as his own position.

Martinu’s musical language is a hybrid. There are nods to the Czech heritage of Dvorak and Smetana. During hazy, atmospheric passages you hear echoes of Debussy. Scenes alive with pulsing frenzy recall the Stravinsky of “Petrushka” and “Les Noces.” Martinu’s vocal writing follows the cadences of the Czech words, even during scenes that seem ripe for soaring melody.

In the town, Michel finds the girl he has been searching for, Julietta (soprano Sara Jakubiak). When she first sees him, she thinks her beloved, having sailed away, has finally returned. But they have never really been together, Michel tries to explain. Julietta’s fraught vocal lines here almost take off into stretches of radiant lyricism buffeted by plush orchestral sonorities. Yet, like her memory, the melodies are short-lived.

The opera comes to a climax in Act II when Julietta, looking at postcards from a memory vendor, imagines the sojourns she and Michel have shared. This just provokes Michel to wrenching despair and, finally, fury. The orchestra does the heavy lifting in advancing the drama, including during many stretches of spoken dialogue, accompanied by a few solo instruments or a florid piano, or, at times, skittish symphonic bursts.

Act III shifts to a Central Bureau of Dreams, where an official explains to Michel that he has just been dreaming. So it’s all a dream? I found this revelation too pat. And it comes fairly late in a long score (nearly three hours of music) that sometimes feels inflated.

Blake — an endearing and sweet-sounding Michel, sung with youthful fervor and stamina — led an excellent cast. Jakubiak brought a rich, earthy, expressive voice and disarming vulnerability to Julietta. Robust tenor David Cangelosi doubled as the police chief and the clerk. Other versatile cast members also sang multiple smaller roles, including Alfred Walker as the memory vendor and a mysterious man in a helmet; Rebecca Jo Loeb as the young boy and a bellhop; and Tichina Vaughn as an ominous palm reader who tells of the past rather than predicting the future.

I hope these dedicated singers get a chance to perform their roles again. Botstein has done his part by bringing a worthy and original opera to attention.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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