I have long considered the six symphonies of Martinů to be neglected masterpieces and would prefer to salute his most often staged opera Julietta …. But I cannot. There are countless examples of operas where the music is let down by the libretto; Julietta has a good libretto let down by second-rate music.
I wouldn't say Martinů's music is bad but I think it is incidental music and not true operatic stuff. It lacks musical substance and continuity in its construction, chattering on for much of the time, syncopated chords and rhythms, sometimes narrowing down to single lines and sequences of common chords, punctuated with the composer's frequent percussion taps and piano breaks.
There are no arias; the music proceeds in recitative most of the time. 'One Damn Thing after Another' describes it.
An article in the programme-book records the idea that Martinů was partly autistic, citing his obsession of compulsive composing, many of the pieces seemingly written on auto pilot. Dross amongst the gold.
But I know that there are some who think that Julietta is the way I consider the symphonies, a masterpiece.
The production by English National is by Richard Jones, one of his best and it does the composer great service, constantly enlivening, imaginative to a degree. Taking a hint from the text the set is dominated by a huge accordion, complete with keyboard, stops, wind panels and finished off with mother-of-pearly finish. Antony McDonald designed it but I bet the idea came from Jones.
The acting and singing were overall excellent. The story by Georges Neveux is about a salesman in search of the heroine, whose voice he heard in a country where nobody has any memory. The inhabitants only know the present, there is a ministry of dreams and we see a fortune-teller who tells only the past, not the future. The title-role is not a very large part, she is a chimaera and anyway is shot in the second act (or was she?, it is that sort of opera, you don't know for sure). Martinů changed the ending, adding to the confusion. There are many quite interesting questions thrown up in the libretto, which was half promised to Kurt Weill and one wonders what kind of a musical comedy he would have come up with. Peter Hoare (tenor) was good as the searching salesman, Juliette (soprano) was finely sung by the Swedish Julia Sporsen. The cast is large and includes: Man in a Helmet (Andrew Shore) a Little Arab, a Fishmonger, a Birdseller, a Sailor (dear old Gwynne Howell, still going strong) and others. Oh yes, and there is Susan Bickley as the Fortune-Teller, nearly forgot her, must be losing my memory too.
Edward Gardner directed chorus and orchestra superbly, as if doing his best to convince us of the worth of the piece.