An indication of the popularity of August Strindberg’s Miss Julie, which sees an aristocratic woman become caught between her love for the valet Jean and societal expectations, is that it has enjoyed performances in every year since it premiered in 1888. There have been many adaptations, and at least three operatic versions, but William Alwyn’s own may have slipped under many people’s radars.
It premiered as a BBC Radio 3 broadcast in 1977 and, despite receiving staged performances at Kingsway Hall in London in 1979, and at the Norwich Triennial Festival in 1997, it remains a rarely performed work. Upon hearing this performance by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under the baton of its Chief Conductor Sakari Oramo, however, one has to wonder how it was ever allowed to become this neglected.
The opera broadly follows the same plot as the play, with any alterations in detail really reflecting the need to make it fit for purpose in its new medium. At roughly two hours (excluding interval), the opera lasts around the same time as the original, but with the music conveying many of the themes and emotions, and things taking longer to say with it, overall the piece contains fewer words. An additional character, the gamekeeper Ulrik, is introduced, taunting Miss Julie and Jean about their affair, and threatening to broadcast it, thus emphasising the point that people are either already chattering about them, or will be doing so if things continue.
The music proves extremely evocative, as it begins in an overwhelmingly boisterous fashion before alternating between bars of what might be termed graceful and ‘dysfunctional’ waltz. There are some musical references to R. Strauss’ opera when Miss Julie sings of seducing Jean like Salome, but the most impressive thing about this score is the manner in which it always works so well in conveying the necessary emotion. For example, towards the end of Act I everything from the words to the music to Miss Julie’s demeanour suggest danger and excitement as she and Jean work up to sleeping together. In Act II, however, all of these same things convey despair and anxiety as reality hits and Jean comes across more as a bully than as an alluring partner. Hints of Ravel and Berg can also be detected, while much of the music does seem reminiscent of film scores, which is hardly surprising since Alwyn composed an enormous number of these.
In this semi-staged performance, directed by Kenneth Richardson, the characters were costumed, while a few props were used so that we actually saw Kirstin preparing the ‘abortifacient’ on a table. Most importantly, Jean carried on the Count’s boots at the start and placed them down, which is crucial to the story as it reveals how that person overshadows everything that happens, even though he is never actually seen. At the start of the second half, however, Jean kicked these off the stage to indicate how he was turning against his masters.
The playing of the BBC Symphony Orchestra was extremely accomplished, while no less so was the singing from all four soloists. They did use scores, but this is no way detracted from the levels of commitment and polish that they brought to their performances. Benedict Nelson only replaced Duncan Rock as Jean at short notice, but asserted his baritone to brilliant effect. The richness in Rosie Aldridge’s mezzo-soprano marked her out as a cook who took no nonsense, while Samuel Sakker, with his excellent tenor, effectively revealed Ulrik’s limited set of values.
Anna Patalong, however, stood as the first among equals as she precisely captured the way in which Miss Julie enjoyed asserting the power that came with her position, even as she showed her desire to fall from it. In Act II, her despair could manifesto itself in vibrato that fluttered in a way that suggested the character’s own feelings of weakness. It may seem far-fetched that such a character would actually choose to commit suicide, and, as such, the measure of a good portrayal of Miss Julie is the extent to which we are really made to feel that no other option was left open to her, and Patalong certainly succeeded in engaging us to that extent.
There have been many concert performances of rarely performed operas over the years that, although highly enjoyable, left one thinking that though the work seemed worthwhile on that occasion, it would still feel out of its depth in a fully staged performance at a major opera house. That is certainly not the case with Miss Julie, however, and we can only hope that a production at a major venue beckons shortly.
In the week commencing 7 October the BBC Symphony Orchestra will be recording Miss Julie for release in due course on the Chandos label.