We speculated about the historical forces extant in Europe at that time--the insecurity of living on the same continent as a megalomaniac madman (What's old is new again!) making a dream world more appealing than reality. We thought at length about the surreal aspects of the story which gave the composer free rein to utilize massive orchestral forces in strange and colorful ways, developing new and wonderful colors with surprising rhythmic twists.
We loved these orchestral colors, the French Horn fanfares, the use of the English Horn and the Bass Clarinet. Liberal use was also made of an accordion and there were sounds we could not identify.
The odd story concerns a Parisian bookseller (performed by terrific tenor Aaron Blake) who revisits a small coastal town where three years earlier he had become enchanted by a woman singing a love song, heard through an open window. There are some pretty strange things going on in this town; the citizens have no memories and live in the present. The railway station disappears. Michel gets elected to high office because he has memories--of a rubber duckie from childhood.
The chief of police (astutely enacted by David Cangelosi) later becomes a postman and denies his earlier occupation. Everything is off-kilter, the way it is in dreams. So, we realize that Michel is dreaming. But was his earlier visit also a dream? One can only speculate; but credence is lent this theory by our own experience of returning occasionally to a certain place in our dream life that doesn't really exist.
Dreams are utilized in the theater quite often. Think of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream and Pedro Calderón de la Barca's La Vida es Sueño. Although Eastern religions claim that what we call reality is really maya or illusion. Nonetheless, we are Westerners and see things differently.
In this libretto, an innkeeper tells stories to an elderly couple, which makes them happy. Is that not true today when many rely on film and other media to make life more interesting?
Act I sets the stage for the action which follows; Act II is surely more compelling as Julietta appears and seems to know and remember Michel. The music given to Julietta, so beautifully sung by soprano Sara Jakubiak, is the most lyrical of the evening. After a romantic reunion there is a spat and the frustrated Michel fires his pistol at the fleeing Julietta. But no one else hears the shot and there is no body. Visiting her home yields no further information. The resident denies her existence. Does this absurdity not resemble dreams of anxiety and frustration you may have had?
Act III brings things together. Michel is in the Central Office of Dreams and there are episodes of humor--a bellhop who wants to dream about the Wild West, a convict who wants dreams of a huge cell, a beggar who wants a dream seaside holiday. At the end Michel refuses to leave and becomes one of the "people in grey", madmen all, deniers of reality. How suitable for Hitlerian Europe!
The singers did yeoman's work in learning this extremely difficult language and managed to capture the rhythmic thrust of the sound as matched to the music. The vocal lines were not at all melodic, as is common in opera of the mid 20th c. The lines were often parlando and there were some lines spoken in English. Although there were no titles, libretti were distributed with the programs and house lights were left on. Most members of the audience elected to read along with the performance.
Aside from the outstanding performances of Ms. Jakubiak, Mr. Blake, and Mr. Cangelosi, we particularly enjoyed mezzo-soprano Rebecca Jo Loeb whose versatility animated a number of roles; equivalent versatility can be claimed by bass Kevin Burdette and bass-baritone Philip Cokorinos. The resonant bass-baritone Alfred Walker also fulfilled a number of roles to perfection.
Two mezzo-sopranos added significantly to the performance--Tichina Vaughn and Raehann Bryce-Davis who each assumed a number of different roles. The Bard Festival Chorale, directed by James Bagwell made significant contributions as well.
But the main event was the orchestra which played magnificently under the baton of Leon Botstein, who loves discovering neglected works. Julietta has not been heard in the United States before. Martinu was a prolific composer who left Czechoslovakia in 1923 for France where his music certainly acquired a degree of Gallic influence. This work premiered in Prague in 1938 but was also translated into French. Shortly afterward Martinu came to the United States, bringing the score with him. Strange that it had to wait nearly 80 years to be brought to the stage of Carnegie Hall. Thank you Maestro Botstein!
(c) meche kroop