Do you stay in the dream or wake up? Anticipating the red or blue pill choice offered to the hero of The Matrix by more than 60 years, Bohuslav Martinů’s 1938 opera finishes at the Bureau of Dreams, where Michel – haunted by his love for Julietta, who may or may not have once reciprocated – decides he’d rather keep hunting this will-o’-the-wisp than leave at closing time. Yet a beggar, a prisoner and a bellhop are also chasing the same woman: even Michel’s dream of Julietta isn’t something he has to himself.
Julietta was given its first performance in French, then swiftly translated into Czech. Frankfurt Opera, however, plumped for a German translation in their 2015 performances (by Dietfried Bernet, although no one is credited in the CD booklet) and, on this live recording, what is evanescent and surreal in French becomes more guttural, more neurotic – the Bureau of Dreams now a decidedly Kafkaesque destination.
This tail-chasing opera may be having a mini-renaissance: Richard Jones’s well-travelled staging landed in London in 2012 and Frankfurt’s production was followed by another at the Berlin Staatsoper this year with Rolando Villazón and Magdalena Kožená, conducted by Daniel Barenboim. The opera’s new lease of life probably depends most on what theatrical panache a director can tease out of it. Here, on record, we are flying blind; and if Sebastian Weigle draws incisive playing from the Frankfurters, teasing out the crunchy textures (a perpetually wailing bassoon is practically the opera’s main character) and hurtling ostinatos, Martinů’s score stretches out its Stravinsky-edged angst and Ravel-tinged flourishes to perilous lengths. This is a hard opera to love.
By far the strongest section is the middle act, with its tantalising almost-love duet for Michel and Julietta, and macabre interjections from a souvenir seller peddling invented memories and a threatening fortune-teller. Here Weigle brings a wistful shimmer and languour to the music without compromising on the creepiness. Kurt Streit’s Michel and Juanita Lascarro’s Julietta make the most of the scene too. Perhaps because she is singing in German, Lascarro is much more intense and passionate than Kožená’s flighty Julietta was in Berlin; Streit, meanwhile, attacks Michel’s treacherously high-lying, declamatory music with an intelligence and suppleness that completely escaped the flailing, overheated Villazón. Streit tires by the opera’s conclusion, but he is not the only one.
The supporting cast are admirably focused, many sharing roles either because the dream world requires it or because of economy. Beau Gibson impresses as the Policeman who’s also a Postman, and Boris Grappe is almost tenderly weird as the Memory-Seller. Oehms provides only the translated German libretto, and so an elusive opera becomes that much more elusive.