Martinu: Julietta

Review by: David Hurwitz

Artistic Quality: 9

Sound Quality: 7

Julietta is Martinu’s operatic masterpiece and also is one of the great 20th century creations in the medium. Subtitled “A Dream Book”, the plot (based on a Georges Neveux play) is almost impossible to describe. A traveling salesman, Michel, arrives at a strange town in which the inhabitants have no memory. They live in a sort of eternal present, forgetting what they have just done, eager to live off of the memories of others (how they remember that they have no memories is not explained). Michel is seeking a mysterious woman–Julietta–whom he met on his previous visit, who alone among the populace seems to remember him (and much else besides). A series of very strange incidents occurs, culminating in a magical second act full of improbable doings in which Michel and Julietta arrange a rendezvous in a nearby wood and reminisce about shared events that never occurred, until at last in a frenzy of despair over the thought of losing her Michel shoots Julietta, or at least he thinks he does. Finally he leaves the town by ship to the sound of Julietta’s voice coming from her house, exactly as when he first met her.

The third act takes place in the “Bureau of Dreams”. Michel arrives there, the man on duty explains, because it is almost time for him to wake up. Everything he has experienced has been a dream. As he digests this fact, he sees various other sleepers calling out to “their” Juliettas, as well as the “grey men” who have refused to awaken and are thus mad in the real world. As he prepares to leave, Julietta calls to him, pledging eternal love. Michel must choose to return to reality or to follow Julietta into madness. He makes his choice, and the opera returns at once to the scene of Michel’s arrival: he is trapped forever in his own dream.

Martinu’s musical style was tailor made for this sort of subject: “dreamy” describes both the man and much of what he composed. Julietta’s haunting melody would appear in many of his subsequent compositions, including the Sixth Symphony. Although not exactly tuneful in a conventional sense, the music itself is richly colored, easy on the ear, and truly unforgettable. Neveux himself felt that Martinu had captured the sound of his play with uncanny precision.

This excellent 1965 performance, captured in somewhat dated but acceptable stereo (the 24-bit remastering hasn’t made any appreciable difference when compared to its last issue) now appears on two instead of three discs, a welcome saving. In the title roles tenor Ivo Zidek and soprano Maria Tauberová do an excellent job, and all of the smaller parts in the very large cast are equally well taken. Jaroslav Krombholc conducts a lively performance and gets an excellent response from the Prague National Theater Orchestra. Although a new recording in modern sound would be most welcome, certainly this classic version does the composer proud, and we’re lucky to have it.

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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: This One

BOHUSLAV MARTINU - Julietta ("A Dream-Book")

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