Julietta [Snář (‘The Dream-Book’)]
- Jan Smaczny
Opera in three acts by Bohuslav Martinů to his own libretto after Georges Neveux’s play Juliette, ou La clé des songes; Prague, National Theatre, 16 March 1938.
Michel a young travelling bookseller
Woman Selling Poultry
Woman Selling Fish
Man in Fur Cap
Man in Helmet
Seller of Memories
Forest Watchman/Police Officer
Voice on Ship
Voice (male) offstage
Townspeople, female chorus, offstage chorus, silent figures in grey
Setting A small seaside town and its surroundings
According to Šafránek, Martinů first encountered Neveux’s play in 1932. After a controversial première on 7 March 1930 at the Théâtre de l’Avenue in Paris, it acquired a considerable following. Martinů was deeply impressed both by its subject matter and by the beauty of Neveux’s language and made his own adaptation of the play with the author’s enthusiastic approval. An initial setting in French was abandoned in favour of a Czech adaptation, composed between 17 May 1936 and 24 January 1937. This involved a change to the end of the play, which originally concluded with Michel remaining uncertain of re-entering his dream world; in the opera, he returns to the setting of the opening scene on hearing the theme associated with Julietta.
The opera had its première under Václav Talich in a production by Jindřich Honzl with set designs by František Muzika (see illustration). Neveux attended the first performance and accounted the musical setting superior to his prose original. Despite the considerable success of its première Julietta was not produced again in Prague until 5 April 1963, when it was conducted by Jaroslav Krombholc in a production by Václav Kašlík with set designs by Josef Svoboda. This production became the basis of the recording under Krombholc, with Ivo Žídek as Michel and Maria Tauberová in the title role. Productions outside Czechoslovakia have been infrequent. Martinů was present at the first German production, at the Hessiches Staatstheater in Wiesbaden on 25 January 1956, conducted by Ludwig Kaufmann and directed by Wilhelm Pohl. The first British production was given by the New Opera Company in association with the ENO at the London Coliseum on 5 April 1978 in a new translation by Brian Large. It was conducted by Charles Mackerras and directed by Anthony Besch with set designs by John Stoddart.
Martinů’s response to the libretto is predominantly lyrical, although, paradoxically, there are no extended vocal solos and no big arias, even for the main characters. The action is advanced largely in telegraphic exchanges between a constantly shifting sequence of individuals. The musical language is the extended diatonicism typical of Martinů’s maturity. The motoric rhythms associated with such works as the Double Concerto for two string orchestras, piano and timpani of 1938 are apparent in passages where the action requires brisk treatment, notably in the first act.
Act 1 A bookseller, Michel, arrives in the square on the quayside in search of the girl whose voice he heard three years before and which has haunted him ever since. After a brief, confusing exchange with two Arabs, Michel enters the Sailors’ Hotel. The townspeople begin to emerge, and in a brisk sequence of gossip it becomes clear that no one in the town has a memory lasting more than a few minutes. Michel’s call for help brings a police officer to investigate. The police officer confirms that no one has a memory lasting any length of time. He asks Michel what his earliest memory of childhood is. Michel recounts, to music with a parodistic, almost neo-classical quality, that he remembers a toy duck. According to the town statutes, anyone with such a memory must become the town captain. The police officer leaves for the town hall to prepare for Michel to recite his tale of a toy duck to the assembled citizens. Martinů maintains the impetus in these wordy, comic exchanges with a free-flowing texture, occasionally involving speech, energized by dynamic rhythms and catchy ostinatos.
The musical characterization veers away from comedy as Michel, to the reduced accompaniment of the piano, recounts how he fell in love with the voice of a mysterious girl. He cannot make himself understood to an audience of townspeople who imagine memories rather than retaining real ones. After these confusing scenes a piano solo introduces the voice of Julietta singing a song of folklike simplicity (‘Moje láska v dálce se ztratila’: ‘My love has vanished in the distance’), succeeded by an instrumental passage of extraordinary sweetness in which Martinů introduces one of his most characteristic fingerprints, a modified plagal cadence (identical with that at the end of Janáček’s Taras Bulba). After two passages of dialogue, Julietta asks Michel to meet her in the woods. The strangeness of their encounter is intensified by a meeting with the police officer, who is now a postman and has no recollection of his earlier exchange with Michel.
Act 2 Michel’s rendezvous with Julietta in scene v is preceded by the arrival at a woodland crossroads of various characters, all of whom suffer from the local lack of memory: three gentlemen in search of a party and, it emerges, Julietta; an old man who sells wine and delights his audience by prompting them with false memories; a Fortune Teller who makes little sense to Michel, but warns him to be careful. Julietta appears and builds a world of fantasy romance in contrast to Michel’s reality. She fancies that the wood is empty, while Michel is certain that he hears voices. Julietta’s music is rhapsodic and highly charged (the passage of repeated rising scales which concludes her first statement was quoted by Martinů in the finale of his Sixth Symphony, 1953). Julietta wishes to be told of a past, which does not exist, in which they were lovers.
Julietta’s fantasies are fed further with the appearance of a pedlar in whose wares – photographs and postcards – Julietta sees a non-existent past with Michel. By contrast, she believes his story about hearing her voice three years ago to be fantasy rather than reality. At the climax of the scene Julietta runs into the woods and Michel fires a pistol after her. In response to Michel’s shot the townspeople appear and threaten to execute him. To divert them Michel tells them more stories and, forgetting their fury, they wander into the woods. Michel arrives back in the town square. He finds Julietta’s house inhabited by a fractious old woman who denies her existence. He once again hears Julietta’s song from Act 1 and, reflecting on its strangeness, boards a ship about to leave the harbour.
Act 3 An official at the Central Bureau of Dreams explains to Michel that he has been dreaming. A succession of dreamers – a messenger, a blind beggar, a convict and an engine driver – enter in pursuit of their fantasies. Each selects a different dream, but in each there is a girl who appears to be Julietta. Michel asks to return to his dream but is warned of the danger by the official. The hazard of returning is illustrated for Michel by a group of timorous grey figures: the personification of those trapped in their dreams. Michel prepares to leave his dream. He hears Julietta calling his name as the Nightwatchman announces that the office is closing. Michel asks to see behind the door; the Nightwatchman reveals that there is nothing there. As he prepares to leave once again, Michel hears Julietta calling him. In a passionate outburst, his longest in the opera, he tells of his desire to return to her. The setting of the opening and some of the townspeople from the beginning of the opera return as Michel re-enters his dream.
The music of Michel’s climactic statement in Act 3 epitomizes the diatonic lyricism of the opera. To balance the frequently telegraphic and naturalistic word-setting, Martinů provides the accompaniment with the necessary melodic expansiveness. His strong sense of comic characterization brings a plethora of disparate small roles to life, and renders engaging and credible passages of dialogue which on the page seem to amount to little more than insubstantial nonsense. Impressionist colouring in the orchestration enhances the dreamlike qualities of this uniquely successful attempt to capture and amplify the fragile beauty of Neveux’s play.