Juliette (/Julietta) - BBCSO / Bělohlávek - Barbican, 27 June 2009
Oh Magdalena, Magdalena. How can such a naturally stunning beauty as Magdalena Kožena get it so consistently wrong? The organisers probably thought they'd covered all bases. Hair professionally curled and pinned, flattering barely-there makeup, diaphanous floral gown. In the semi-staged semi-darkness she embodied the fragile, elusive Julietta, who captivates the hero Michel with her haunting aria.
Then she stepped forward into the spotlight.
And 2,000 people saw her underwear.
Let me put it this way. If you're wearing a see-through dress, you need a slip that starts at the same place as the transparent fabric does. In this case, the bust. Not six inches below. If she'd hoicked her slip up and pinned it in place, we'd have been none the wiser. Instead, we were mesmerised by the sort of long white undergarment that might shield nuns' nun-bits from their habits. Oh dear. So near and yet.....
Like Julietta's composer and its original libretto, Magdalena is, of course, Czech. But a golden opportunity was skipped here in favour of premiering Martinů's own recently-rediscovered French translation - making the title, more correctly, Juliette.
Besides offering a world first, and probably allowing more of the audience to appreciate it without the subtitles, this decision had a lot to commend it musically. Martinů was living in Paris when he wrote Julietta. And the opera reflects a very French sensibility in its ironic and sometimes cruel humour, its measured inconsequentiality and conscious eclecticism. Even the story - the man who pursues his love-object in a dream-world where everyone has amnesia - is quintessentially surrealist. There are hints of Janáček in there, but the more obvious comparisons are the Paris Stravinsky (Martinů even pops in a Sacre paraphrase), and particularly Poulenc.
Jiří Bělohlávek's studied insouciance and wit captured the flavour perfectly, and the BBC Symphony Orchestra sounded immaculately prepared. Some extended longueurs evaded even his sure touch - Martinů spread his treasures thinly over a vast opus, and this is one opera that could have done with some editing. But the deft solo passages and curious percussion sparkled. And he straightened his face and got serious for the last act's great dramatic moment as Michel decides to abandon real life forever and follow Juliette into a penumbral world of dreams.
The cast had worked hard to inject humour and variety into the long declamatory passages, though some coped better with the French than others. William Burden's language skills were more convincing in speech than in song, where he over-nasalised. But he was effective and sympathetic in the central part of Michel, and really put everything into it.
Magdalena Kožena, despite the, er, unfortunate slip, captured Juliette's ethereal other-worldly appeal perfectly. It's not a large part (despite the opera's title) but she was very much the dominant presence throughout.
The role experience of the Paris Opera's character tenor Andreas Jäggi showed in his detailed portrayals of the Police Chief, Postman and Clerk. Costumes and props differentiated the several roles most of the cast played, and Roderick Williams too was a standout, defining his characters neatly and projecting with power and assurance. Rosalind Plowright was a memorable fortune-teller in a swirling cloak. Even with the encumbrance of scores and stands, this was one 'semi-staging' that really worked, eliminating potential confusions and elevating the performance to a higher level.
Most importantly, it focussed attention on the music, which although this year is the fiftieth anniversary of Martinů's death, few have so far been prepared to do. Some news about Martinů's other great opera, The Greek Passion is anticipated soon though, and Bělohlávek and the BBCSO will be bringing a symphony cycle to the Barbican in the autumn. About time!
to be broadcast on Radio 3 on Tuesday 31 March at 6.30pm - and presumably available for the next week on the iPlayer too (thanks HairMan for the comment)
~~~~~~~~~~ more photos on next page! ~~~~~~~~~~