It is no wonder that August Strindberg’s Miss Julie has generated, at last count, four operas – this BBCSO season-launcher by William Alwyn, by Ned Rorem, Philippe Boesmans, and, most recently, Joseph Phibbs – since the 1888 play, which not surprisingly fell foul of the censors, first appeared in Copenhagen. It is compact, with big characters and a cast-iron plot about the handsome chauffeur who has a torrid one-night-stand with the daughter of an unseen but omnipresent Count, in an isolated mansion in the Swedish countryside on Midsummer Night. It ends badly. The plot may have become bowdlerised now as a pornography caricature, but the play takes it deep into the naturalistic and pitiless machinations of need, vulnerability and naked lust, glamorised by its master-servant, victim-abuser tension, encased in repressive nineteenth-century proprieties, and endowed, not that successfully, by some crude symbolism.
Alwyn’s version was a long time coming. He was thinking about it over forty years, but only got down to it in the 1970s – it was first heard in 1977 – after he had retired from London to Suffolk, where he died, just up the road from Aldeburgh, in Southwold in 1985. He had taught at the Royal Academy of Music, produced a prodigious number of film scores, was flautist with the LSO for a while, and was a significant figure in new music promotion in the 1950s and 1960s.
It was a bold move on the part of the BBCSO and Sakari Oramo to present this rarely performed British opera by a composer whose considerable output is well-represented by recordings, less so in the concert hall. Miss Julie is probably the work for which Alwyn is now best remembered, but he came in for a lot of flak for introducing a fourth character, Ulrik the gamekeeper, to the original’s three-hander; and for all its symbolism and dramatic diversion, the role feels applied and makes the work unnecessarily longer. Given Alwyn’s film work, the score has a remarkable facility and cinematic urgency. Most of the musical interest lies with the orchestra, and the singers’ lines are speech-based, with only a few crucial melodic outpourings for Miss Julie and Jean, the valet/chauffeur.
Oramo and the BBCSO ramped up colour, mood and attack to such a pitch that you couldn’t avoid hearing how the score is like the Firebird, Bluebeard and Judith, Tristan and Isolde, Minnie and probably Elektra all fighting like cats in a sack, with lurid and electrifying results, while all the various waltzes started off charmingly enough, but then become like Sondheim careering off the rails into uncharted erotic territory. The second Act didn’t let up for a moment, and Oramo was shameless in exhausting then re-inflating its tumescent flow. Melodramatic sparks flew in
Kenneth Richardson’s simple staging, and you could only admire the way all four singers could clinch, go crazy then crazier, and hurl abuse, recriminations and declarations of undying love at each other while manipulating their scores as though it was the most natural thing in the world. Among some mirth-inducing moments when all the going over the top got too much, there was the priceless one when Ulrik shot Miss Julie’s dog – here a cuddly toy in a basket – with someone either in the orchestra or the audience providing a little doggy-terminated yelp.
That aside, the singers were totally convincing, and didn’t let pace or temperature dip for a moment, which is bound to come across very strongly in the forthcoming Radio 3 broadcast (Saturday, October 5). In his two appearances Samuel Sakker’s Ulrik wound up Jean and “the Mistress” through drunken ramblings and cynical put-downs. Rosie Aldridge stole every scene she was in as the cook Kristin, who has her own plans regarding Jean, and whose presence was as formidable as her powerful mezzo. As the desperate lovers, Anna Patalong and Benedict Nelson (who replaced Duncan Rock at short notice) were incandescent – they are married, to each other. Nelson’s performance and seductive baritone caught all Jean’s coercive eroticism and underlying weakness superbly, and Patalong was similarly completely inside Miss Julie’s manipulative talents, her flakiness and sudden bursts of strength. They were a white-hot double act as they plan their hopeless elopement to Switzerland to open a hotel with the money she’s stolen from the Count’s safe. Then the Count’s bell rings, Jean realises on what side his bread is buttered, and leaves Miss Julie to her only way out.
I doubt the performance could have made a stronger case for the work, leaving us as drained from hearing it as Alwyn was by finally completing it.