Bohuslav Martinů (1890–1959) is the mostly widely performed twentieth-century Czech composer after Janáček: his narrative opera The Greek Passion (1961), based on Kazantzakis’s ‘Christ Recrucified’, and the earlier Julietta (1938), are regularly performed. Martinů travelled widely and because of political upheavals in Europe, lived outside Czechoslovakia – mainly in France and the USA – for many years; he forged a highly approachable personal style of music characterised by sprightly, jazz-like rhythms and warm melodies.
Julietta is based on a surrealist play, ‘Juliette, or The Key of Dreams’ by Georges Neveux; Martinů explained that, ‘The libretto and play are not a philosophical dissertation, but an extraordinarily beautiful and poetic fantasy in the form of a dream.’
The plot can certainly be understood along the lines of the fantasy film, Groundhog Day. Michel, a travelling bookseller, arrives in a seaside town to look for Julietta, whose siren voice has haunted him since a previous visit. The inhabitants of the town have no individual or collective memory and live in the present; in the same way that in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king, Michel intrigues them by virtue of his memory. He ‘meets’ Julietta, but when she runs away he shoots at her; was the encounter real, or a dream, and is Julietta dead? At the ‘Central Office of Dreams’, Michel is advised to return to the waking world, or risk being trapped in his dream for ever; he hears Julietta’s voice, and as the Office closes, he decides to remain, and as at the beginning of the opera, he finds himself arriving in the town once again …
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