English National Opera's second production this season, Bohuslav Martinů’s Julietta, reaffirms their reputation as risk-takers. Martinů operas are a rarity in this country, but what a successful gamble this turns out to be. Julietta is a study in dreams, memories and self-identity, and this imaginative production - which inspires some thrilling orchestral and vocal performances - is a must-see.
The curtain rises on a front cloth painted with sleeping people sprawled in disarray as if caught enacting their dreams. Then one sleeper - who turns out not to be a painting at all - wakes and crawls towards his briefcase to start his morning routine. Or is he still asleep and dreaming? He turns out to be Michel the travelling bookseller and he soon finds himself in a strange seaside town where he came three years ago and heard a lovely girl sing. The townsfolk, it soon transpires, suffer from a collective amnesia and only the sound of an accordion brings back memories. The accordion also provides the visual stimulus for the entire production, as the bellows are expanded to form the townscape. After several absurd interactions with the townsfolk, Michel finds the girl, Julietta, and she arranges to meet him in the forest.
Act 2 is achingly beautiful, as we find ourselves simultaneously inside the forest and the accordion. Michel sees echoes of himself lost in the forest and meets a fortune teller who only foretells the past. We see the café of memories and the memory-seller who sells mementoes, so the amnesiacs can construct pleasant memories for themselves. These turn out to be so pleasant, in fact, that Michel's 'real' memory seems dull in comparison to Julietta, and as she tries to run away Michel shoots her. The body isn't found but neither is the girl and Michel runs away by boat.
In Act 3 he finds himself in the Office of Dreams where the accordion has become a giant filing system, the grilles of the instrument becoming a rather terrifying memento mori skull that guards the entrance to dreamland. Michel battles to be let back in but is led away to the opening sleepscape. There he finds he can effortlessly re-enter his dream and chooses to do so despite now knowing that Julietta is the fantasy of many dreamers and that he will be trapped in limbo forever.
Richard Jones's production is excellent. He captures the hyper-irrational but internally consistent logic of dreams - wardrobes come with a hand-flap so you can pop out your hand and open the doors from inside. He also captures those beautiful inconsistencies of dreams - an onstage French horn can be heard even when we see it has stopped being played. Insignificant elements of dreams re-emerge later more significantly so the jagged silhouette of the accordion bellows re-emerge as the crocodile's teeth. If an element of the video projection was scrapped or malfunctioned we barely missed it. The production is exquisitely designed and lit by Antony McDonald and Matthew Richardson.
Peter Hoare as Michel provides yet another career-defining role. Julia Sporsén sings a fine Julietta. Andrew Shore and Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts lead a superb supporting cast who take on their multiple roles with aplomb. Ed Gardner's conducting swept us up and made a compelling case to explore the rest of Martinů’s operas. (Nik Dasgupta)
Until 3 October (six performances) with a start time of 19.30. Tickets: 0871 911 0200 or from the ENO website.
Photo: Be careful what you dream for. Peter Hoare (in white) as Michel in Richard Jones’s Julietta, © Richard Hubert Smith.