If Martinu was still alive and I had the opportunity to meet him, I reckon I’d probably quite like him. Just look at a picture of him. He looks like he was a nice kind of sort. I’ve no real idea, of course. To judge someone solely by my emotional response to a photograph of someone is a classic and quite literal illustration of judging a book by a cover. This is not to be encouraged.
However, there’s another reason (equally shallow) I reckon I’d quite like him. The music he wrote made him sound like a good bloke. He understood about music and it’s place. He got the balance right.
I’m basing this on one single concert performance of Martinu’s opera Juliette given by a small but perfectly formed and exquisitely able cast of soloists, the BBC Singers and Symphony Orchestra last night. Given that I went to the Barbican Hall in central London expecting to hear a programme of orchestral work by Milhaud, I can also confirm that attending performances of unknown works by personally unknown composers needs both an element of surprise and an open mind. Those two things alone will guarantee the right mindset.
The friend I was accompanying had already had the presence of mind to do a small amount of research before the performance thus making tackling the ridiculously long queue for the programmes a pointless affair. “Read this,” she said pointing to the synopsis at the bottom of the page.
Michel Lepik, a bookbinder from Paris, is dreaming. Finding himself in a small harbour town he sets out to look for a woman (love interest Juliette) he’s absolutely convinced he met three years before. The only problem is, everyone around him can’t remember anything beyond ten minutes in the past. After a search he finally finds her spends a bit of time trying to persuade her into remembering memories of their time together and then when provoked proceeds to shoot her. He only sees her again when he’s approaching the end of his dream in the “Central Office for Dreams”. The nightwatchmen is encouraging Michel to leave (if he stays past his allotted time he’ll stay forever). Will he stay or go?
“Bonkers, isn’t it?” she said looking back at me. We laughed. It did sound rather odd.
And yet, the moment conductor Jiri Belohlavek struck up his baton, Martinu’s music transfixed. Stunningly effecient in his writing, Martinu’s style was established within the first five minutes of the work. This was cinematic writing, tonal and lush. Great swathes of sound painted with broad brushstrokes designed to compliment the action implicit in the vocal lines of the over-worked soloists.
The action got cracking soon too and despite being sung in French (Martinu was Czech by birth and had originally written the performance in his native tongue later choosing to translate it to French when the Nazi invasion of his homeland in 1939 made the likelihood of further performances in Czechoslovakia extremely low) the audience was guided through the plot by the reassuring presence of a surtitle display at the back of the stage. Without it things would have been very tricky to follow indeed.
As a performance there moments during the first act when the otherwise brilliant William Burden playing the lead role of Michel was drowned by the orchestral sound. But this might well be the only criticism which could be levelled at what had quickly become clear was a hugely engaging dramatic work brought to life by the cast.
Concert performances of opera are perhaps the fairest way of judging too. All too often a composer, his work and the cast will be judged indirectly by the stage production. If the visuals aren’t right then any failings in performance normally overlooked are amplified.
Strip away the stage production to the core requirements – the characters occupying their own individual space on stage with a suggestion of a costume and acting as much as they need to – and attention is focussed on the things which matter: the action and the music. And when audiences are focussed on the action and music, the composer’s has found his short cut to the brain. The audience will be putty in his hand.
Credit must go to the small cast of performers some playing multiple roles in the opera. In opera there’s a judgement to be made on acting as well as singing ability and in this performance it was very difficult to find fault with either in anyone’s contribution. Aside from the glossy perfection of Magdalene Kozena’s Juliette and William Burden’s effortless Michel, Andreas Jaggi’s postman, clerk and police chief were hugely entertaining.
Mention must also go to members of the BBC Singers Olivia Robinson (3rd Man), Margaret Cameron (2nd Man), Michael Bundy (Grandfather) and Lynette Alcantara (Young Sailor) who, frankly, need to be brought to the front of the stage more often. Competent performers with adorable voices.
It is perhaps the fact that I can’t recall much of the music (other than the fact I rather liked it) which speaks the most about Martinu in the final analysis. If a composer can write a score in such a way that the music doesn’t dominate then he’s ticked one very big important box. Clearly Martinu had a realistic understanding how important he was. I do admire that character trait in an individual.
BBC Radio 3 broadcasts a recording of this performance on Tuesday 31 March at 6.30pm. The broadcast will be available for a further seven days.
Cast (in order of appearance)
Michel William Burden tenor
Little Arab/1st Man/Bellhop Anna Stephany mezzo-soprano
Old Arab/Old Sailor Zdenek Plech bass
Bird-Seller/Fortune-Teller Rosalind Plowright mezzo-soprano
Fish-Seller/Grandmother/Old Lady Jean Rigby mezzo-soprano
Man in Chapska/Father Youth/Convict Frederic Goncalves bass
Man in Hat/Seller of Memories/Blind Beggar/Nightwatchman Roderick Williams baritone
Police Chief/Postman/Clerk Andreas Jaggi tenor
Juliette Magdalena Kozena mezzo-soprano
3rd Man Margaret Cameron mezzo-soprano
2nd Man Olivia Robinson mezzo-soprano
Grandfather Michael Bundy baritone
Young Sailor Lynette Alcantara mezzo-soprano