Juliette, Martinů’s World without Memory


Martinů’s surrealist opera ‘Juliette’ challenges us to examine dream and memory

Martinů’s surrealist opera Juliette – The Key To Dreams (Snář) premieres Mar 24-25 on The National Theatre stage, playing there for only the fourth time since its original Prague premiere in 1938.

Bohuslav Martinů’s rush of inspiration derived from Georges Neveux’s original play which premiered in Paris in 1930. Out of the blue in 1936, Neveux receives a letter from Martinů: “…I have just finished reading your Julietta – I don’t know what happened but the first act is ready, visit me, please… .”

Neveux is taken by Martinů’s charm and turns down Kurt Weil’s agent, who has asked for the play first. Martinů almost immediately sketches the opera, writes a libretto in French, and sets out from his home in Paris to Prague.

Here he assigns the staging for The National Theatre with Conductor Václav Talich, whom he had already written in 1936 from Paris: “I am working on a new opera … it´s a kind of a bizarre dream… it is quite difficult and there is nobody I could entrust with it…”.


The original stage set from the 1938 premiere

The stage design is by avant garde artist František Muzika, who gets so interested in Julliette that even after the opera is staged he works on ‘Juliette’ paintings further on.

The role of Juliette is sung by Ota Horáková, a gorgeous diva with a brilliant soprano voice.

And Prague´s public highly praises Martinů’s first public performance of his first full-length opera.

Between the Dream and the Reality

What’s the story behind Martinů’s sudden inspiration and frenetic rushing from capital to capital, and the work that seems to have inspired everyone associated with it?

We are carried away with Michel into a world without memory, looking for a fleeing Juliette and her lost song. Michel is the only character who can retain memories and act upon his convictions.


The iconic face of Juliette, for the current production’s poster

“The whole play is a desperate effort in search of something stable, concrete, on which one could rely,” writes Jaroslav Mihule, on a Juliette recording sleeve-note. Memory and conscience are undermined and “transformed into tragic situations, in which Michel fights to maintain his own stability and preserve his common sense. Should he fail, he would have to remain in this world without memory and without time forever.”

Michel’s longing for Juliette and her lost song are particularly poignant when set to music: “The premiere had a special significance, for it was the first time that he was offering the public a full-length opera, the orchestral component of which was of a truly symphonic concept,” according to Mihule; “and it was also the first work in which he treated [the] untraditional theme of a surrealistic tone, far removed from what was usually seen at an opera.”

The current production is staged by artist and director Zuzana Gilhuus, living at the moment in Norway and known for her extraordinary feeling for the dramatic and metaphoric context between the visual and the musical.


Radím Vizváry

Radim Vizváry, highly regarded internationally as a mime artist, and also as a dramaturge, choreographer, and director of the international Mime Fest, choreographed the movement on stage.

David Poutney worked on the English reconstruction of the original version of Juliette for Bregenz and for Covent Garden; he appealingly sums up his bird’s eye view:

“[Martinů] … seems to have absorbed from early childhood the perspectives of the far horizon. He was constantly on the move, using his talent as a violinist in Paris, escaping from Nazism and Stalinism to the USA and France again. Martinů ranged magpie-like over a whole spectrum of contemporary European culture without ever really making his home in any style, and yet always managed to invest each of his borrowings with his own idiosyncratic identity.”


An amusing Martinů self-portrait

Poutney claims Martinů’s connection with a “Czech tradition of fantasy as exemplified by Kafka, Čapek and later, Kundera, and embodied in music of haunting poignancy the sadness, fear, and bewilderment of our emotional lives.”

Mihule, writing in a Martinů monograph, explains, “For Martinů the motifs of the opera became motifs of his own search. It never disappeared from his mind,” he suggests.

He thinks that Juliette echoed the living past in Martinů’s thoughts, as if he wanted, like Michel, to recall his own memories.

In autumn 1958, shortly before his death, Martinů writes to a friend in Prague: “Juliette is the only thing I would like to hear again before I join the angels.”

It’s hard to imagine a more pressing recommendation than that.

Juliette premieres Mar 24-25, 2016 at The National Theatre, with further performances Mar 28, April 3 and 26, and May 15.

– Hana Blažková, Opus Osm writer;
compiled from information from the Bohuslav Martinů Institute and from Bohuslav Martinů, Profil života a díla (1974) by Jaroslav Mihule.

Photo Credits: Top and bottom: Hana Smejkalová; historic, poster, and Vizváry photos, The National Theatre; Martinů's drawing, Opus Osm archives

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