Julietta, the enigmatic opera by the Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů − who also wrote the libretto − is based on the play Juliette, ou La clé des songes (Juliette, or The Key of Dreams) by the French author Georges Neveux. Modern performances of the work have been rare, although a Paris production was revived in London in 2012 to enthusiastic audiences, and a new production was also staged in Bremen about a year ago.

Joseph Kaiser (Michel) and Annette Dasch (Julietta) © Monika Rittershaus
Joseph Kaiser (Michel) and Annette Dasch (Julietta)
© Monika Rittershaus

Martinů was well aware that the play had met with harsh criticism among Parisian theatre-goers in the 1930s. But the composer’s close association, both with the French Surrealists − who were interested in the landscape of dreams − and others making headway in the study of the subconscious, positioned him nicely to explore like themes, and his opera met with great initial success.

The story itself is as illogical as it is lack-lustre. Michel (Joseph Kaiser) is a bookseller who travels to a seaside city where none of the inhabitants remember anything about their pasts. When the townspeople realize that he has the gift of memory − by remembering the rubber ducky in his childhood bath − he is elected to lead the town. Okay, other politicians have risen to power on fewer credentials, right? But then, Michel stays on, trying to find a woman named Julietta (Annette Dasch), whose voice he once heard from a balcony across the village square. Is that, perhaps, Shakespeare’s Juliet connection?

As the audience, we can’t be sure whether the heroine here is real or a product of Michel’s imagination, but he does eventually find her, and the couple profess mutual love. Yet almost as often as she appears, Juliette calls and sings to him from undisclosed locations. Over a quarrel related to an insult she levels at him (“you looked like an elephant”), Michel is provoked into shooting her, but given that she may be imaginary, however, nothing can affirm that she is really dead. At the "Central Office of Dreams", however, Michel is warned that if he does escape the dream, he will be confined to its world forever. Sadly, that’s exactly the option the poor man decides to take. So in sum, with few auxiliary characters of note, a little humour, perhaps, and a modestly happy ending, Juliette assumes the posture of an awkward Olive to Michel’s Popeye, embracing him with one foot raised idly behind.

Pavel Daniluk (Grandfather), Joseph Kaiser (Michel) © Monika Rittershaus
Pavel Daniluk (Grandfather), Joseph Kaiser (Michel)
© Monika Rittershaus

General Director Andreas Homoki can be commended for picking up such an obscure work. In doing so, he shows his vision for the Zurich Opera as something other than an opera house that simply spoonfeeds old favourites to a conservative audience. Further, the two principal singers must be singled out for their fine vocal achievements. Young Canadian tenor Joseph Kaiser played a convincing – if painfully naïve − Michel, and the stunning German soprano Annette Dasch has a consistently round and beautiful legato voice in the lead role. When either had any real substance to sing, it was pure magic to hear them. But most of their duets came across in the score as exaggerated and saccharin, embedded in a somewhat spiritless score.

Indeed, there are countless scenes in which one lover is shuffling around on stage looking for the other; Michel, particularly, potters at great length in the empty library in Act lll, making one wish all the more that the opera had finished neatly after Act II, which − as plots go − might have worked. Juliette’s plight is no less grave: as the ultimate tease, she sings like a Greek siren to Michel three times, bumping him out of his pale reveries until he returns to his ramblings centre stage.

Airam Hernandez (train driver) © Monika Rittershaus
Airam Hernandez (train driver)
© Monika Rittershaus
By contrast, the 1930s period costumes (Christian Schmidt, costumes and set design) made for kind of historical Augenschmaus: the women in collared dresses and matching hats of your grandmother’s era, the men, in perfectly fitted knickerbockers and shiny wingtip shoes. But the set changed at almost a dizzying speed, lurching between the library and the street-side façade of an high-end urban dwelling − whose mainstay, incidentally, looked painfully like that in last month’s Tristan and Isolde. Often the one or other set here was only visible long enough for a character to walk through it, and the opera features no fewer than some 50 rotations, clearly too much of a good thing. Even a great life-size train locomotive was pounded into the audience’s head, appearing Magritte-like no less than four times. Then swoosh, set change, and young sequoia trees appeared among the stacks of books. Then it’s the prow of a steamship – the offer of a rescue mission – that bears down on the library from beneath a high arcade. Whatever happened to “less is more”?

Granted, the staging did give the audience the same sense of dislocation, disassociation and confusion that Michel must have felt: he arrived by train in a city that “had no station”, where he was looking to find a woman with whom he’d never had even the briefest verbal exchange, and in a town where no one had a memory. What was worse: every woman was named “Juliette”. 

So it’s dreams, no logic, and Ambiguity with a capital “A”. Martinů aknowledged that the opera lacked a real plot, but said the vividness of the characters and their dilemmas should give it the coherence it needed to be dramatically compelling. For me, the work came across instead as loveless, overlong, and burdened by a heavy instrumentation. While Maestro Fabio Luisi called it “light comedy” in an interview, he evoked something whose volume, dark colours, preponderance of horns and demonstrative percussion often overpowered many of the singers. Even barring the few glimpses we had of Debussy’s Pelléas, of Poulenc and Stravinsky, much of the music seemed without pulp or purpose. Those who want to walk a thin line between dream and reality, abide by laws contrary to every particle of logic except those of the most fantastic imagination, might enjoy this obscure work. After all, the principals and the chorus are superb. But I, for one, am blessed with a memory, so offer this for what it’s worth: back in the Hippy era, a liberal democratic friend once warned me “not to be so open-minded that your brains fall out”. Nothing speaks against giving Juliette a try, but in my opinion, this production is pretty much a case deserving of that caution.

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