Carnegie Hall 2018-19 Review: American Symphony Orchestra & Martinů’s ‘Julietta’

A Powerful U.S. Premiere Of A Rare Czech Opera

By Jennifer Pyron

The American Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Leon Botstein, concluded its 2018-19 season at Carnegie Hall with a much anticipated and unique Czech version of Bohuslav Martinů’s opera “Julietta.” With the title role sung by American soprano Sara Jakubiak and the role of Michel sung by Met Opera artist Aaron Blake, the opera revival was geared towards success from the start. 

A Deeper Look At “Julietta”

Before the performance, Botstein held a “Conductor’s Notes Q & A” along with Aleš Březina, composer and musicologist, and Michael Beckerman, Carroll and Milton Petrie Professor of Music at NYU. In this discussion, audience members were given valuable insight as to why Botstein chose to perform this piece here in the U.S., especially the Czech version as opposed to the French version, and how Martinů’s culturally adept musicalities and use of surrealism in this opera are pertinent to today.

“Given the evident and long-overdue Martinů revival now underway, particularly with regard to the instrumental and symphonic music, the operas demand a new look. And that suggests that Martinů’s most celebrated and most uniquely 20th-century opera, in terms of subject and plot, merits a hearing in the US,” said Botstein. “I made the decision to do the Czech version because the Czech language has its own very specific musical quality and I came to the conclusion that a lot of the singing is not coloratura, bel canto or Wagner’s stentorian singing, but is kind of a parlando commentary where the melody is in the orchestra and the singers are talking above it.”

“Really overall, there is a lot of recitative that makes the sound of the Czech language an integral part of the musical fabric.”

Martinů’s “Julietta” was initially written in French, however it was first staged at Prague’s National Theater in 1938 and featured a libretto in Czech. It was not until later that Martinů retranslated it back to French. However, between the two languages lies “a subject that transcends culture; it is not tied to any particular nativist traditions,” said Botstein.

Beckerman described “Julietta’s” musical style best when he said “this opera is filled with little references to all different kinds of music. I refer to this half-jokingly as the Habsburg-style. Like Mozart, it’s not that Martinů has a style so much, but a style-of-styles.”

Based on the play “Juliette, ou La clé des songes (Juliette, or The Key of Dreams),” written by French author Georges Neveux, Martinů was intentional while writing his music for “Julietta” with a purposeful “surreal” pursuit in mind. In doing so, one could say he created the most appropriate composition design to house a dream sequence based story.

Březina clearly defined Martinů’s compositional inspiration when he described how “Martinů immigrated to the US in 1941 from France, taking only four scores of his own music with him. One of them was ‘Julietta.’ The opera was written in 1936-1937 and at that time Martinů was between 46 and 47 years old. He was entering the mature phase of his compositional output. ‘Julietta’ is a piece where the maturity melts with the energy of his youthful pieces. It mixes all the Czech background of him with all the French influences he learned from 1923, when he first moved from the Czech Republic to France. This is a very unique and surprising piece of music: a chameleon-like piece.”

Between Dream and Reality

This was a one night only U.S. premiere and it is important to note that the cast for this opera spent more time learning and rehearsing, then they did performing it for a live audience. Knowing this beforehand made the performance even more special and unique because it further enhanced the audience’s insight of the singers’ artistic versatility and commitment.

However unpredictable Martinů’s “Julietta” seemed, the singers expressed a unified fearlessness and enthusiasm. One might assume this shared bond was based on each singer’s journey while in the learning process, because not one of the singers came from a Czech background. Overall, the wildly creative cast concisely asked the opera’s main question, as Beckerman had mentioned, “what is the line between dream and reality?”

Tenor Aaron Blake, who sang Michel, was a powerhouse that supplied a spark of energy into every note he sang as he led the audience into the darkest corners of his mind while Michel is in a mad search for Julietta. Blake radiated profound sensitivity, and was consistently expressive in all the right moments. A pivotal scene in the opera takes place in Act two, Scene six A, when Michel tries to remember if he actually shot Julietta. In doing so, he plunges into a mental spiral of infinite questions and questioning, where he loops back and faces his own worst fears. Blake was relentless in his mission to discover his character’s truth and sang with bold clarity and focus to the very end.

And while the role of Michel was physically most present throughout the opera, it was Julietta that proved to be the opera’s most vital part – hence the title of the opera. Even when Julietta was not on stage, it was her absence that tormented and toyed with Michel as he transformed himself into a prisoner of his own mind. One might say that while experiencing Michel’s journey with him, they too were also affected in the same way; thus, highlighting the surrealism based influences of this opera. 

Sara Jakubiak, as Julietta, was flawless. Jakubiak mystified the audience with her singing and her gift of creating a desire in everyone’s mind to see her as the answer to Martinů’s puzzling opera. She was a rare combination of grace, fortitude, vulnerability, power, sensuality and at times, powerlessness – molding into whatever image Michel held of her. Jakubiak proved to be a high level, multi-faceted performer.

The constant stream of mental juxtaposition and humor that pulsed through the main vein of this opera allowed other singers to shine as well. Mezzo-soprano Raehann Bryce-Davis is an excellent example of how the singers proactively navigated a musical terrain that called for the artists to experiment with a combination of singing in Czech and speaking in English. Bryce-Davis sang four roles in the opera: Fish Seller, Third Man, Grandmother and Old Lady. As she intelligently and strategically maneuvered in and out of sequences, as each different character, Bryce-Davis sang with confident vocal and acting skills. Moments where she used the light in her eyes to look out into the audience and sing were incredibly moving. 

Mezzo-soprano Rebecca Jo Loeb, as Young Arab, First Man, Young Sailor and Bellhop, was present from the start of the performance. Along with Blake, she remained balanced and vocally refined so that she could physically manage all four of her roles. In Act one, Scene one, Loeb was the perfect vocal match for Blake. Both sang with an appropriate manner of story-telling that invited listeners to open to the idea of an alternate reality. Remembering what once was or what possibly could have been. 

The Rest Is Best

Every singer displayed an air of freedom that highlighted their individual styles, voices and personalities while singing and speaking in their multiple roles. Tenor David Cangelosi sang the roles of Police Chief and Clerk, which were both key influencers to Michel’s mental escapade. Cangelosi was a guidepost throughout and his voice fit the part with its warm and distinct style.

Bass-baritone Alfred Walker, who performed the roles of Man with Helmet, Memory Vendor and Beggar was also vocally a key element to the puzzle. Walker’s genuine sense of humor was his signature talent for being able to maneuver from character to character.

Bass Kevin Burdette, who sang Man in Window, Old Man Youth and Convict, sang with noticeable variety as he portrayed each role and emphasized the hilarity of his role as Old Man Youth. Bass-baritone Philip Cokorinos performed as Old Arab, Grandfather and Old Sailor with gusto and enjoyment. Cokorinos’ warm timbre and demeanor was highlighted most while he sang as Grandfather.

And mezzo-soprano Tichina Vaughn was a sensation, especially while singing with Bryce-Davis. Vaughn, who sang the roles of Bird Seller, Second Man, and Palm Reader, was the most free during her performance and this added an element of fun to the cast’s whole dynamic. 

The Bard Festival Chorale, directed by James Bagwell, was also present on stage and added an ethereal resonance during Scene Six A, after Julietta cries “ah!” The singers were able to capture sound environments with their voices by sustaining long and clear notes that created an atmosphere of ethereal noise. They blended together in the opera’s mystifying dream sequence and musically ushered listeners to ask: “what is reality?”


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