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Composers in Exile: Bohuslav Martinu and Alexander von Zemlinsky


By Joel Kasow

PARIS, 10 December 2002 - When World War II broke out, many composers were forced to seek exile far from Europe. Many chose the United States of America where their careers continued to progress, mostly because they were already well-established: Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Weill, Martinu, to name but a few. Others languished in semi-obscurity as their fame was already waning, the classic example being Alexander von Zemlinsky. Zemlinsky was a contemporary of Arnold Schoenberg; they had been brothers-in-law at one time, as well as friends and, in fact, Zemlinsky had taught Schoenberg. On a number of occasions, the latter was known to have said that the almost-forgotten Zemlinsky's time would come. Thanks to the work of Anthony Beaumont, Gerd Albrecht and James Conlon, an ever-increasing audience is aware of Zemlinsky's not inconsiderable qualities.

Bohuslav Martinu was more fortunate, arriving on a crest that did not diminish during his American years. The fact that he was twenty years younger than Zemlinsky may also have assisted in his adaptation to new circumstances; moreover, he had already spent a large part of his life in France. Upon arrival, commissions flowed in his direction as did teaching assignments. The composer even became an American citizen in 1946. Juliette ou la Clé des Songes had previously been heard in France in concert in the early 1960s (performance available on CD) with staged performances in the 1970s, and now for the first time at the Opéra National de Paris (22 November).

For the first time in many years, the Opéra has mounted a production that is totally in synch with the work, capturing the essence of Georges Neveux's surrealist drama. It is unfortunate that about a quarter of an hour was cut from a work of normal proportions, while we must assume that the now-surpassed translation, credited in the program, was chosen in preference to the composer's own French version that has only recently become available. These two quibbles aside, director Richard Jones and designer Antony McDonald have finally found a work that brings out their best qualities, even though they found it necessary to change the sex of the Chiromancien, thereby providing Michèle Lagrange with an amusing turn.

Martinu: Juliette ou la Clé des Songes
Le bureau des rêves from Juliette ou la Clé des Songes
Photo: Eric Mahoudeau

Taking the presence of an accordion in the orchestra pit as a starting point, the set decoration is a large accordion seen from various angles in each of the acts, opening out to an enchanted forest for Act 2, the keyboard of the accordion downstage as the floor of the forest and the bellows framing the sides. The dream-like elements of the work are never flouted, the entire cast never sets a foot wrong, never acknowledges the audience, other than when required on one occasion.

Alexia Cousin in the title role showed that she is more than capable of sustaining such a burden, even though it is William Burden as Michel who in fact has considerably more to do, so that untraditionally it is he who takes the final bow during the curtain calls. Burden's light tenor, pleasant in timbre, was occasionally overpowered by Marc Albrecht's often over-enthusiastic direction of the orchestra. The remaining roles are episodic, with several singers reappearing in various guises, all excellent: Laurent Naouri, Alain Vernhes, Karine Deshayes, Christian Tréguier, Michèle Lagrange, Martine Mahé.

Juliette ou la Clé des Songes
Michel (William Burden) et Juliette (Alexia Cousin) in Juliette ou la Clé des Songes
Photo: Eric Mahoudeau

A Zemlinsky-Wilde double-bill of Der Zwerg and Eine florentinische Tragödie (21 November) offered a schizophrenic experience: producer-designer Pierre Strosser used the same set for both operas, a large panelled hall seen on a bias, with costumes of perhaps the Wildean era for the former (quite successful except that the Infanta was indistinguishable from her companions) and contemporary dress for the latter (less successful because the producer eliminated any ambiguity with his proto-Tennessee Williams approach). And it is that which left such a bad impression at the end of an evening that had gotten off to such a good start. Strosser seemed to get pleasure from showing us Simone returning home to find Bianca in the process of getting dressed, Guido strutting around in his tee-shirt, with Bianca ignoring every one of Simone's orders.

The stage action was often meaningless in terms of the dialogue, but then perhaps Strosser was emulating the Siegfried-Mime scene. Fortunately, a high musical standard was maintained throughout, thanks to Armin Jordan and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. Elzbieta Szmytka's Infanta was perhaps too sophisticated but her voice soared continually, as did that of Iride Martinez (Ghita). David Kuebler crept around on his knees in the title role, one he knows inside out; unfortunately, some of the climaxes are now too much for him. Detlef Roth as the Major-Domo was not always audible.

In Florentinische Tragödie Simone sings far more than his two partners, and Pavlo Hunka (looking like Willy Loman) had little trouble sustaining his difficult role. Victor Lutsiuk (Guido) occasionally offered tremulous tones while parading around like a peacock. Fredrika Brillembourg made the most of her few opportunities, but presumably her bored stance was what the producer wanted.

Joel Kasow is the Operanet editor of Culturekiosque.com..

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