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Martinů: Madness & Laughter

Music Review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sat Mar 23rd, 2019

Leon Botstein with cast of Julietta and The American Symphony Orchestra

Bohuslav Martinů’s masterpiece opera Julietta, first staged in 1938 at Prague’s National Theater, had to wait 71 years until last Friday night for its New York Première at Carnegie Hall. The opera presents an adaptation of Georges Neveux’s 1927 play Juliette ou la Clé des Songes (Juliet or the Key to Dreams). The opera explores fragments of dream and reality with imaginary intersecting borders, as well as the ambiguity of longing desire and the delirious disorientation of alienation. The three-act opera, slightly over two-and-a half-hours, delivers dislocating and disarming lyricism amid surreal and satiric atmosphere amid haunting experiences. Ninth among his sixteen operas, this was Martinů’s favorite, and critics consider it his uncanny masterpiece.

The primary influences remain Alban Berg, Igor Stravinsky, and a smattering of French Impressionist composers, especially Debussy. While the structure of the opera conveys an improvisational ambiance—as various musical styles appear like blushing and changing chameleons or the current nighttime Spring migration of salamanders—the madcap story of the amnesiac townsfolk remains accessible in its broad comedy.

As for the plot of the wandering bookseller marooned in a small seaside town that is like any small seaside town, this story remains lost in the past, as much as it is lost in the present and future. The bookseller, sung by tenor Aaron Blake was appropriately confused and forceful at the conclusion, yet the most adoring kudos were for Soprano Sara Jakubiak who sang with memorable emotion and arcing beauty in her higher register. Tenor David Cangelosi as Police Chief and Clerk performed as accomplished actor with clear diction and stage presence, as well as being a most capable singer. Bass-baritone Alfred Walker’s booming voice conveyed arresting authority in his various roles as he spoke with crisp and subtle intonations, while Rebecca Jo Loeb delivered an alluring and ethereal silver sound as mezzo-soprano.  

Unfortunately, this was not a full production and most actors had to play more than one role. Without costumes, stage action, mime, sets, or props, the imaginative visual appeal was not there to enhance comic aspects, especially with the American Symphony Orchestra plainly on stage, rather than in a traditional pit.

Everybody in town lives in a temporary limbo of amnesia, raising the question as to whether the obsession of romantic love is merely a healthy dream necessary for life, or an infernal delusion wherein the local populace has lost their identity—perhaps much like contemporary Americans who live in a media-saturated society outside of a historical continuum. The opera exposes humankind’s deep desire to renew memory despite the overwhelming tide of historical amnesia, yet in the end memory is the language of regret.

Juilietta’s plot is propelled by musically shaped speech, as in Debussy’s Pellás et Mélisande (1902) where there is no distinction between recitative and aria because the original libretto, in both operas, was in prose, although a signature Julietta musical motif becomes bracingly repeated at crucial moments. While the opera was sung predominantly in Czech, selected passages were translated into English by Czech composer Alex Zucker, who, along with conductor Leon Botstein and New York University Professor Michael Berkman, led a lively pre-performance discussion of the opera's disparate facets.

The libretto offers episodic pastiche amid the theme of memory as delusion. Ultimately, this is a tragedy where the bookseller whimsically murders Julietta, yet her haunting memory returns like a mermaid siren to destroy the hapless Michael in her vengeance. The problem with the libretto is that it remains difficult to identify with Michael, and his concluding aria exudes more self-pity than catharsis for the audience.

The music resounds on a superior level above the sometimes amusing, charming, silly, and witty libretto. Botstein clearly understood the varied texture of the musical terrain. Several martial marches brim with biting irony. The forest music offers mysterious and haunting melodies which one would like to revisit. At the end of Scene VII in Act Two occurs an amusing allusion to Berlioz’s self-mocking portrayal of his imaginary self-execution from his Symphony Fantastique. Yet it remains the caustic mocking of self-pity that preserves Berlioz’s simpler and more effective version as superior. Most of the satire in the libretto contains a genial hue, even the mocking of Americans' childish obsession with racism against Native Americans. The recurring praise of Spanish and French culture supplies satire on superficial Romantic, tourist inanity. Ultimately, the trajectory of eclectic satire arrives on the Czech doorstep: “Here! Here! Here!” being the concluding lines of the opera.

Surrealism on stage usually becomes self-consciously awkward. While this opera avoids that problem, it also avoids the deep emotional fabric of which melodrama is but the costume. Surrealism works more successfully in the visual arts, a comic aspect of the production that was left naked. To familiarize yourself with the contagious sensibility of Czech humor, I suggest reading Jaroslav Hašek’s masterpiece, The Good Soldier Schweik (1921-23), which excels in episodic and surreal humor.