Julietta is an opera by Bohuslav Martinů, who also wrote the libretto, in French, based on the play Juliette, ou La clé des songes (Juliette, or The Key of Dreams) by the French author Georges Neveux. A libretto in Czech was later prepared for its premiere which took place at the Prague National Theatre on 16 March 1938. Julietta has become widely considered as Martinů's masterpiece.[1]

Performance history

Martinů became aware of the play by Neveux in 1932, two years after its premiere at the Théâtre de l'Avenue de l'Avenue in Paris (8th arrondissement) on 7 March 1930.[2] It appears that Neveux had come to an agreement with Kurt Weill to base a musical comedy on his play, but on hearing some of Martinů's music, passed his favour to the Czech.[3] The initial work on the opera was undertaken to French words, but a Czech version was set between May 1936 and January 1937.[2]

By the time of its premiere Martinů had written eight operas in a variety of styles. The work received its first performance at the National Theatre, Prague on 16 March 1938 (as Julietta aneb Snář), with Václav Talich conducting, a few months before Martinů made his last visit to his country of birth. From Paris he wrote to Talich expressing his deep thanks to the conductor for his “understanding” which “showed all who worked with you the right path”.[4] Neveux had also been present at the premiere, adjudging the setting better than his prose original.[2]

Subsequently the opera has only been intermittently performed at that house; new productions were mounted in 1963 and 1989, and an Opera North production was seen three times in 2000; in March 2016 a new production was premiered at the theatre,[1] and performances are scheduled for its 80th anniversary in 2018.

The composer was present at the German premiere in Wiesbaden in January 1956.[2] A production by the Bielefeld Opera in Germany conducted by Geoffrey Moull received eight performances in 1992. In France, a radio broadcast in 1962 was conducted by Charles Bruck, while the stage premiere was at the Grand Théâtre in Angers in 1970.[3]

The UK premiere was given in April 1978 in London by the New Opera Company at the London Coliseum, conducted by Charles Mackerras in an English translation by Brian Large, with Joy Roberts and Stuart Kale in the principal roles,[5] and it was revived by English National Opera in the following season. There was a production by the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in 1987 conducted by Howard Williams, with the title role shared between Juliet Booth and Sarah Pring.[6] Following a performance at the Edinburgh Festival by a visiting Slovak company in 1990, the next UK production was by Opera North in 1997, with Rebecca Caine and Paul Nilon.[7] A production by Richard Jones in Paris in 2002 was revived by English National Opera in September/October 2012 to enthusiastic reviews overall.[8]

Germany's Theater Bremen staged a new production opening on March 29, 2014 under the direction of John Fulljames.[9] Andreas Homoki and Fabio Luisi mounted a new production at Opernhaus Zürich with Joseph Kaiser as Michel in 2015 and the Berlin Staatsoper premiered a new production on 28 May 2016 at its temporary Schillertheater home, with Daniel Barenboim conducting, Claus Guth[10] directing, Magdalena Kožená as Julietta and Rolando Villazón as Michel.

Martinů's seeting of his libretto is primarily lyrical although there are no extended solo arias. The “extended diatonicism” of the composer's mature works features alongside with “motoric rhythms found in his Double Concerto of 1938, espeically where the plot moves rapidly forward.[2]

Jan Smaczny observes that the ability of the composer to characterize, honed as an observer of small-town life when a child living in the Polička clock tower offers a sequence of "sharply painted tableaux" with a "carnival of caricatures", both comic and poignant.[11] For the singers, there is the factor that significant sections of the piece are dialogue rather than singing, although Martinů's experience in a variety of theatre works before this, his ninth opera, allows him to weave the spoken words as an integral part of the impact of the opera, "distancing the audience from the often dreamlike quality of the musical fabric".[11] A snatch of melody on an off-stage accordion, and a melodic fragment which symbolizes longing are introduced at key moments in the score. Smaczny commetns that "suggestion is everything in this score, and Martinů is astonishingly successful at stimulating the imagination often with breathtaking economy".[11]

The opera was one of the composer's favourite works, and he incorporated a few bars from it in his last symphony in 1953.[12]

There are two principal roles: Julietta (soprano) and Michel (tenor). James Helmes Sutcliffe remarked in Opera News[13] on "Martinů's beautiful score" and on his "lyrical, atmospheric music". Hindle and Godsil have published a psychoanalytical study of the opera and analysed the work in the context of Martinů's life.[14]

The opera was revived at the Prague National Theatre on 16 March 2018, the 80th anniversary of its premiere.[15]

Orchestral Suite

Martinů began to prepare a concert work from the opera, "Three Fragments from Julietta", with changes to the original vocal lines, after the opera's premiere, after his return to Paris. However, the outbreak of World War II interrupted his work, and his own labours on this composition continued until his death in 1959. The score was lost after Martinů's death, until 2002, when Aleš Březina discovered the piano reduction of the score among a private collection of papers. After Březina returned to Prague to have this adapted into a full orchestral score, the Czech publishing firm DILIA revealed that a full score already existed in their archives.[16] Sir Charles Mackerras conducted the world premiere of the "Three Fragments from Julietta" with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra in December 2008.


Ota Horáková as Julietta
Role Voice type Premiere Cast, 16 March 1938[17]
(Conductor: Václav Talich)
Julietta soprano Ota Horáková
Michel tenor Jaroslav Gleich
Small Arab mezzo-soprano Štěpánka Štěpánová
Old Arab bass Luděk Mandaus
Woman selling birds and poultry mezzo-soprano Ema Miřiovská
Woman selling fish soprano Marie Pixová
The man with the helmet baritone Zdeněk Otava
Police officer tenor Karel Hruška
Three gentlemen sopranos Marie Budíková, Anna Kejřová, Anna Petridesová
Grandfather Youth bass Josef Celerin
Grandfather bass Josef Křikava
Grandmother contralto Marie Veselá
Fortune teller contralto Marie Podvalová
The seller of memories bass-baritone Jan Konstantin
The old sailor bass Josef Munclinger
The young sailor tenor Josef Vojta
The old lady mezzo-soprano Božena Kozlíková
The forest guard tenor Karel Hruška
The messenger soprano Táňa Tomanová
The official tenor Miloslav Jeník
The beggar bass-baritone Stanislav Muž
The convict bass Luděk Mandaus
The railway engineer tenor Josef Vojta
The nightwatchman bass Hanuš Thein
Chorus: Townspeople; a group of grey figures.


Act 1

Michel, a traveling bookseller from Paris, finds himself in a seaside town in search of a girl whose voice has haunted since first hearing it three years before. From the following scenes with various townspeople, it emerges that none of them can remember more than a few minutes, which is confirmed by a police officer. The policeman asks Michel what his oldest memory is – in fact, a toy duck. As he has such a good memory the townsfolk he is elected to be town captain, and the officer departs to prepare for his inauguration. As Michel (with just piano accompaniment) tells some townspeople of how he came to fall in love with the voice of the unknown girl, the voice of Julietta is heard and after her song she asks him to meet her later in the woods. The policeman returns as a postman with no recolleciton of his meeting with Michel.

Act 2

At a crossroads in the woods near a fountain, various people enter, all showing a lack of memory, including a fortune teller who forewarns Michel of something. When Julietta arrives she conjures a world of romantic fantasy and asks him to tell her of their (non-existent) past love. A peddlar comes by selling wares in which Julietta sees her past with Michel. She runs into the woods and Michel fires a shot at which the townspeople rush in to arrest him. He diverts them by telling them stories and they forget their intention to execute him and wander away. Back in the town square Michel locates Julietta's house, but an old woman says that she lives alone. He hears Julietta's song again, but decides to embark on a ship and leave.

Act 3

At the Central Bureau of Dreams several dreamers (the messenger, the beggar, the convict, the railway engineer) come to ask for their fantasy dream. Michel is warned that if he returns to his dream and does not wake up, he will be imprisoned in the dream-world forever. Ready to leave his dream, he hears Julietta's voice calling him and despite the nightwatchman's warning declares that he will stay with her. The setting and townsfolk from the start of the opera returns, and Michel remains in the dream-world.




  1. ^ a b Allison, John. Report from Prague. Opera, June 2016 Vol 67, No 6, p713-715.
  2. ^ a b c d e Smaczny, Jan. Julietta. In: The New Grove Dictionary of Opera. Macmillan, London and New York, 1997.
  3. ^ a b Bohuslav Martinů: Juliette ou la Clé des songes. In: Kaminski, Piotr. Mille et Un Opéras. Fayard, 2003, p839-841.
  4. ^ A letter from Martinů. Quoted in translation in English National Opera programme booklet, 1979.
  5. ^ Crichton, Ronald, "First Performances: Julietta" (June 1978). Tempo (New Ser.), 125: pp. 26–27.
  6. ^ Elizabeth Forbes/Rodney Milnes. Julietta. Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Reviews. Opera, May 1987, Vol.38 No.5, p583-584.
  7. ^ Loppert, Max. Julietta. Review of Julietta by Opera North in Leeds. Opera, December 1997, Vol.48 No.12, p1487-1490.
  8. ^ Andrew Clements, "Julietta – opera review", The Guardian (London), 18 September 2012
  9. ^ [1] Theater Bremen
  10. ^ http://www.staatsoper-berlin.de/en_EN/person/claus-guth.70644
  11. ^ a b c Jan Smaczny. A key to Martinů's 'Julietta'. Opera, October 1997, Vol.48 No.10, 1162-67.
  12. ^ Mihule, Jaroslav. Bohuslav Martinů. Státní hudební vydavatelství (Editio Supraphon), Praha, 1966, p36.
  13. ^ Metropolitan Opera's website
  14. ^ Debbie Hindle, Susie Godsil; Godsil, Susie (2006). "The song of the siren: Some thoughts on idealization and creativity in Martinů's Julietta". International Journal of Psychoanalysis. 87 (4): 1087–1102. doi:10.1516/BB2H-BQXY-GEWW-88YW. Retrieved 29 November 2007. 
  15. ^ Prague National Theatre. Juliette (The Key to Dreams). Retrieved 16 March 2018.
  16. ^ Frank Kuznik (11 December 2008). "A historic start for the Martinů year". The Prague Post. Retrieved 6 March 2009. 
  17. ^ Details of premiere of Julietta (Snář) at the Prague National Theatre web archive site Archived 2016-07-01 at the Wayback Machine. accessed 26 May 2016.