By Rebecca Schmid
BERLIN — With the first production of Bohuslav Martinů’s Juliette in the city’s history, the Staatsoper im Schiller Theater Berlin brings to life an operatic document of surrealism. Half of the composer’s 14 stage works fell under the spell of the artistic movement in post-World War I Paris, but Juliette occupied the most prominent place in his oeuvre. Martinů repeatedly revisited the work, penning a French-language version just before his death in 1959.
Since its 1938 premiere in Prague, the opera has received only scattered performances, but a revival may be underway. Last year, the Zürich Opera House mounted a new staging, and in 2012, English National Opera imported Richard Jones’ 2002 production, first seen in Paris. The Staatsoper turns to German director Claus Guth, whose dark imagination finds a perfect outlet in Martinů’s tightrope walk between dream and reality (as seen at the May 28 premiere).
The libretto, fashioned by the composer after the Georges Neveux play Juliette ou La clé des songes (Juliette, or The Key of Dreams), tells of an imaginary coastal village where the inhabitants have lost their memory. Michel, a traveling book merchant, is the only one with rational faculties, but he develops an obsession with the beautiful Juliette after hearing her sing from an open window. When she rejects him, he draws a gun, hears a shot fired, but is not sure if he pulled the trigger. Unable to return to Paris, he joins “a crowd of those who have chosen to live in dreams forever,” as Martinů wrote in 1947.
Guth and his set designer, Alfred Peter, depict a nightmarish zone where Michel (Rolando Villazón) is trapped. An all-white set lined with a labyrinth of doors and windows provides entrances for the various villagers, from the man with a hat (Arttu Kataja) — who ascends from the floor to the sound of accordion — to the Little Arab (Thomas Lichtenecker), who comes somersaulting in to confront Michel.
Giant houseplant leaves descend for the second-act forest where Michel has a date with Juliette (Magdalena Kožená), their green hue contrasting beautifully with a lipstick-red dress for the heroine (costumes by Eva Dessecker) and evoking the paintings of surrealist artists. (In program notes, Guth mentions René Magritte, best known for “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.”)
Even more than its keen aesthetic, the staging is impressive for its sensitive timing with Martinů’s score. The composer hoped to transcend operatic conventions and move Juliette into a more purely theatrical realm. Spoken dialogue evolves naturally into singing; the orchestra vacillates between punchy Neo-Classical vignettes and late Romantic lyricism, between lush tonality and glazed harmonies, as if mirroring Michel’s own battle to find orientation in a world suspended between different realities.
Such details as a menacing snare drum, a bare English horn that haunts Michel, or the dreamy sheen of celeste over atmospheric strings and winds become integral parts of the action. From the orchestra’s collective scream at the end of the first act, when Michel picks up a handgun in bewilderment, to the trembling strings that accompany his loving recollection of seeing Juliette for the first time, Guth preserves Martinů’s intricate dialogue between theatrical and musical elements.
Only his decision to have Michel commit suicide at the end of the second act comes as an unnecessary stroke of director’s revisionism. The third-act landscape of billowing clouds that spills over into the orchestra pit is mesmerizing — all the more so as the fog accrues when the orchestra becomes more furious — but the use of a Doppelgänger to represent Michel’s physical body while his spirit ascends to the Central Office of Dreams seems too literal for Martinů’s vision of a world where dream merges with reality.
Nevertheless, the scene of heavenly inhabitants walking slowly in the mist to the Staatskapelle Berlin’s skillful playing under music director Daniel Barenboim made for a powerful combination. Throughout the evening, sensuous woodwinds, biting brass, and raw percussion kept the listener hooked to incidental detail, while the orchestra’s rich strings were in full service to full-bodied, lyrical passages. The performance was so striking that the players received rousing applause between the second and third acts.
The opera is also an ideal vehicle for Villazón, a rare breed of opera star who nearly masked his vocal struggles with an energetic physical presence and acting skills. His timbre became coarse and strained even in the first-act soliloquy, “Je suis né à Périgourd” (I was born in Périgourd), and by the third act he was pushing his larynx to its limits from the edge of the stage. But his keen grasp of Guth’s vision was undeniable.
Kožená, a seasoned interpreter of the title role, brought a lush, expressive timbre that has become richer over the years, blending beautifully with atmospheric orchestral textures. Memorable comprimario performances came from house ensemble member Elsa Dreisig (a seller of birds, a palm reader) and the American tenor Richard Croft (a police commissioner, a ranger, and more). Such a production should give opera houses around the world an incentive to invest their resources in this 20th-century masterpiece.
Rebecca Schmid is a music writer based in Berlin. She contributes regularly to the Financial Times, New York Times, Gramophone, Musical America Worldwide, and other publications.