He arrives in a strange town, carrying a little suitcase. He asks the little boy in the fez to take him to the Hotel Voyageur, but the little boy says he can’t because he has no legs. But moments later he does have legs, indeed the very suggestion he might not have legs is absurd. The boy’s father offers to take him to the hotel, then denies there’s any such hotel. This would be a surreal city even if it weren’t in the shape of a giant concertina that expands slowly across the stage.
Nobody here remembers anything, except our central character, Michel. He is only here because of a memory, a woman he heard singing when he visited this town before, as he walked back to the station. Now having memories makes him a VIP here. He sings a trivial story about a toy duckling he had as a child, and the townsfolk wistfully echo ‘Quack quack’ and make him the Commander of the town.
It’s a dreamlike world without cause and effect, where meaning is arbitrary. The music is tuneful and playful, but the orchestra underscores the changeable mood of a situation that can change from high romance to menace without warning. When Michel finds Julietta again, their duet soars with the strings like a moment in Wagner. But does she truly remember him?
In fact, in the forest that lacks landmarks or any sense of distance, she begs him to make up memories of their time together, instead of the disappointingly limited truth. Everyone here is seeking an imaginary past, and they don’t care whose it is. The seller of memories glides across the stage inside a wardrobe, then brings out photographs of a Spanish holiday Michel and Julietta never shared. She doesn’t care, but he does; ‘These are all fantasies, made up. What’s the point of that? I want real things, real memories’.
Written in the 1930s by Bohuslav Martinu, a cosmopolitan Czech with a French wife, and based on a play by French/Russian Georges Neveux, the opera premiered in Prague in 1938. Its poetic surrealism veils a more serious absurdity. What does it mean if our memories are arbitrary, are no more than stories we tell ourselves? If the feelings of love are the same, does it matter if the shared past on which they rest was bought by the yard, or borrowed?
Michel feels that his love is real because it is based on a true memory of a young woman singing at a window. But it seems he is not the only man searching for the lost beloved, Julietta. Is his romantic quest as much a delusion as any of the townspeople’s memories?
Martinu’s vocal lines have a lightness of touch that makes room for comedy as well as romance and jeopardy. The vocal echo is a recurring motif, adding to the sense of unreality and disorientation. Beauty runs through, among the witty instrumentation and dramatic crescendos. But it’s an unsettling beauty, modernist discords upsetting the romantic themes just as the narrative slides about, causeless and unpredictable.
According to the programme notes, the playwright had also been approached by Kurt Weill about adapting Julietta, and only turned him down after hearing Martinu play the first act. It’s interesting to speculate what that version would have been like – darker, perhaps, more pointedly political? (Martinu and his wife would flee across Europe to America only a couple of years after the opera’s premiere).
But Martinu’s opera doesn’t make historically specific links, nor does this production seek to retrospectively impose them. So we’re free to take it on different levels, as philosophy or entertainment, an amusing fantasy or a resonant glimpse into a world without cause or consequence, memory or meaning.