Summary for the Busy Executive: Unsettling.
Here's a Fun Fact: Martinů wrote more operas than symphonies – eleven vs. six. The symphonies have experienced a boom, with at least five integral recorded cycles, and I've even come across some of them live. However, none of his operas have reached the repertory status of even the Janáček operas, which themselves can hardly claim mass opera popularity – that is, I haven't heard anyone anticipating Renée Fleming's Jenůfa or Ben Heppner's House of the Dead. We will not likely hear Martinů's Greek Passion, for example – in the United States, at any rate – mostly because there's very little serious opera here, the genre having been swallowed by the vocal Olympics and production design. Martinů the dramatist lives almost entirely through recordings. Even here, however, some of his operas have received more than one recording, and not always with Czech forces to boot.
I tend to doubt Martinů's operas will ever attain the level of listener affection of even the Janáček operas, despite some terrific music. First, most of them reject verismo and melodrama. They are "think" pieces, as opposed to the blood-and-thunder "melodrammers" that make up the bulk of the operatic repertoire. Furthermore, Martinů eschews direct psychology. The surface tells you all you know about a character, as opposed to Janáček, who invests even animals and libretto stereotypes (think of Mr. Broucek) with individual personalities. Martinů simply isn't interested in this kind of theater. Far more attractive to him are the medieval mystery play, the circus, and the cabaret, as well as archetype over character. There seems to be an "objective" side to him, consistent with his instrumental composing personality. Hence, one finds such works as The Miracle of Our Lady, a pageant of medieval spirit, Suburban Theater, a cross between vaudeville and commedia dell' arte, the farce Comedy on the Bridge, and Ariane. Artistically and literarily, Martinů in Twenties and Thirties Paris allied himself with the Surrealists, as most in tune with his dramatic aims. Ariane and Julietta are both based on libretti by Surrealist poet Georges Neveux, a name now probably known mainly to scholars, but prominent in his own day not only in Paris but (just as important) in Prague, where Julietta was to première. Martinů began with Neveux's original French play. He got to a certain point, began to translate the libretto into Czech, and decided that the music didn't fit the Czech to his satisfaction. He then scrapped what he had written, translated the entire play into Czech, and recomposed from scratch to the Czech libretto. Since then, Julietta has been staged and recorded in French – in this case, a translation back into French of Martinů's Czech, rather than Neveux's original. Neveux attended the Prague première with Martinů and thought the opera better than his own play. In his estimation, Martinů had brought out elements that Neveux had only dimly been aware of, to the opera's advantage.
For a full-length opera, Julietta's plot is extremely simple. Michel, a bookseller, once heard a girl singing in her window, and now he dreams about her. He becomes obsessed with finding and meeting her. Indeed, he has fallen in love with this phantasm of memory. In his dream, he arrives at the same seaside town and asks for her. However, each inhabitant of the town not only doesn't know the girl, each has no memory at all. They have no knowledge of who they are or how they got there, and hunger for any memory, even the ones not their own. The opera consists largely of Michel going from one group of people to the next as he searches for Julietta, and it's a tribute to Martinů's powers of musical invention that it doesn't get stale. He finally catches up with the object of his desire, but the encounter fails to satisfy him. She, like the other dream figures, hungers for his memories and will say anything to keep him talking. Finally, she darts off. Michel arrives at a ticket office – a point of embarkation to the waking world. Michel wants to stay with Julietta but learns that if he remains in his dream, he will go mad. He decides to stay, and the opera ends exactly the same way it began, as his dream starts again. I can't tell you what it "really" means, beyond what it says, although like most Surrealist work, it invites speculation. It has the disturbing power of dreams – the sense of isolation and confrontation and the quick cuts to "something completely different." Were it not for the music, it could easily become something very dry and ultimately uninvolving. But the musical is beautiful and lyric, if not particularly dramatic. Ultimately, the music holds the listener to the plot, rather than the other way around.
As a builder of opera, Martinů belongs neither to the Wagner nor to the Verdi camp, although he's closer to Verdi. Mozart seems to be the model here, with Martinů's concern for symphonically building an entire act from scenes and scenes from separate numbers. However, he does not resort to 18th-century pastiche, as Stravinsky does in his later masterpiece The Rake's Progress. Instead, the music looks forward to the Martinů symphonies, begun in the Forties. It's an attractive idiom to begin with, capable of great song. It's nice to know that, as did Haydn, Martinů based the instrumental form on a vocal one. If you know the symphonies, you will very likely enjoy the opera.
There have been at least two recordings of this work – one in French with French forces on Chant du Monde and this Czech production. I prefer the Czechs by far. The characterizations are more vivid (and Martinů needs all the help he can get in this regard), and the music seems played and sung with greater understanding. Sound is early stereo – okay, but nothing to write home about.
Copyright © 2001, Steve Schwartz