At least fifty shades of grey permeate Richard Jones’s production of Bohuslav Martinů ’s best-known opera Julietta (making its British debut having premiered in Geneva), in both the colour scheme and the story itself. The Czech-born Martinů is often criticised for being too prolific and dabbling in too many different styles, and has been deemed something of a curiosity in this country as this 1938 work wasn’t seen in Britain until 1978. Inspired by Georges Neveaux’s play Juliette, ou la clé des songes (Neveaux was originally approached by Kurt Weill but he turned him down when Martinů presented his initial efforts), it’s a piece of surrealism that defies coherent analysis but is undoubtedly hugely impressive.
Open with the disquieting image of seemingly inanimate sleeping figures suspended in mid air, Jones’s staging is dominated by a single extraordinary prop – a giant accordion (designed by Antony McDonald) that represents the townsfolk’s memory aid. The concertina folds call to mind walkways that connect aeroplanes with their departure gates, and things reaches science fiction proportions in the final act where it resembles a sinister kind of filing system cum spacecraft about launch into the unknown.
There’s something of a medieval courtly romance in any tale of a man haunted by a beautiful, unobtainable woman. The protagonist Michel, a travelling bookseller from Paris, returns by train to the station-free town where he was once captivated by a girl singing at her window. The locals have a memory span lasting minutes and prey on strangers for their memories; bizarre bylaws come into action when prompted by random childhood memories, a fortune teller wanders around predicting the past, and all letters delivered by the town postman are at least three years so that the recipients can adopt the contents as their own self-formulated memories.
Perhaps most poignant is the second act’s romantic woodland rendezvous in which an elderly couple’s struggle to remember anything about their younger days is an all-too-true glimpse of the of ravages of dementia. When the line between fantasy and reality leads Michel to commit a terrible act of violence, his trio of travesti doppelgangers (Emilie Renard, Clare Presland and Samantha Price) don crocodile heads and the concertina folds snap like jaws.
The lead roles are superbly sung and acted by Peter Hoare as the befuddled and bespectacled Michel, who is perfectly matched with Julia Sporsén’s Julietta, who manages to be both vibrant and wispy (her flame-coloured hair is the brightest flash of colour on stage). There are also very fine supporting performances from the multitasking Susan Bickley, Andrew Shore and Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts amongst the band of unquiet sleepers trapped in this weird netherworld.
Martinu’s music doesn’t piece the heart (ironically in an opera about memory, the music itself is less memorable than the staging); instead the layers of sound (wonderfully emitted by the ENO’s orchestra conducted by Edward Gardner) gradually build up an eerie dreamscape – one can only speculate as to what it’s all about, but the overall effect is impossible to forget.