William ALWYN (1905-1985)
Miss Julie (1977) [117:58]
Jill Gomez (soprano) - Miss Julie; Benjamin Luxon (baritone) - Jean; Della Jones (mezzo) – Kristin John Mitchinson (tenor) - Ulrik
Philharmonia Orchestra/Vilem Tausky
rec. Kingsway Hall, January 1979
LYRITA SRCD.2218 [62:34 + 55:22]
The orchestration may not seem the most natural subject with which to begin an opera review, but that's the feature of William Alwyn's Miss Julie that most strongly impressed me. Over and over - even more consistently than in Alwyn's symphonies - one is struck by the shimmering orchestral palette, not only for the way it underlines the characters' emotional states, but by the sheer aesthetic pleasure it provides. The composer's practice of allotting blended strings and winds both to melodic and to accompanying elements could, in less expert hands, produce an undifferentiated thickness; but here the textures are full and translucent, with warm, individual wind colours shining through.
If Alwyn's musical aesthetic is appealing, however, the "ideology" he brings to composing opera, comprising artificial restrictions of a sort he'd never have imposed on his instrumental music, is perhaps a drawback. You can't argue with his dictum, expressed in a letter to Christopher Hassall, Walton's librettist, that "Opera needs the bare minimum of words" - the verbal narrative must be pruned, as Boito did for Verdi's Shakespeare libretti, sometimes ruthlessly. The vocal writing is mostly grateful. On the other hand, Alwyn's insistence on using one note for every syllable whenever possible, while furthering verbal clarity, doesn't help produce the sort of melody that lingers in the memory, nor does his expressed intention of "avoid[ing] soliloquies and monologues" make for many set-pieces of the kind that attracts the Verdi-Wagner-Puccini crowd. So this music is unlikely to find a wider audience.
Then there's the question of why one would make an opera out of Miss Julie at all. In the album booklet, Rodney Milnes pronounces the play "a natural for operatic adaptation", which I don't see. It may be true that Strindberg's characters "say only about a quarter of what they mean", leaving the music plenty of room to hint at the subtexts and to flesh out "character and motivation". That said, there remain a lot of blanks for the listener to fill in. Nor did anything in either the music or the composer's own skilfully edited libretto give me any reason to care about these characters, all of whom struck me as venal and dislikable.
Still, the piece deserves its place in Lyrita's fine Alwyn series, with the conducting actually improving on the other releases. In the symphonic music, the composer's own podium leadership brings a unique, and persuasive, authority to the interpretations, but also allowed for passing bits of nervous rhythm and laissez-faire ensemble. The opera sessions, on the other hand, benefited from the presence of a full-time conductor, Vilem Tausky, who brings more expertise and experience to the task, with firmer control of orchestral detail and texture. There's still the occasional miscoordination - the heavy brass start to lag behind the rest of the orchestra during the Act Two Interlude - but the sense of direction is always clear, and the singers always have time to phrase. The Philharmonia responds with power and color.
This was my first extended exposure to Jill Gomez, who enjoyed a reasonably high-profile British career in the 1970s and 1980s. Her sensitive, responsive performance suggests she might have been an effective exponent of the title role on stage, and her crystalline sound certainly suggests the character's fragility and vulnerability. Her voice is however stuck in a single, narrowly varied color, and mostly lacks the presence needed to dominate the scenes, though she musters a surprising amount of tonal body for a few lines in the midrange. Here and there, she's engulfed by the orchestra, even under studio conditions. Gomez's singing above the stave also sounds unduly strained for a voice this size, and intelligibility becomes a problem up there, though this may be more Alwyn's fault than hers.
The loutish Jean proves a good change of pace for Benjamin Luxon, allowing him to break free of the art-song-and-oratorio mould that dominated his discography. He projects the character's elemental emotions effectively, though, perhaps fortunately, he's too good a musician and an artist to project real coarseness.
The two smaller roles are capably taken. Della Jones is a flavorful Kristin, sassy and practical, despite a few improbably high-class broad As ("clahss," "dahncing"). John Mitchinson vividly limns the drunken, mischievous Ulrik in two scenes; here and there, he'll shift a single note or word into a falsettoish mix - probably a matter of technical necessity as much as artistic preference - but puts those tones to good, sardonic use.
Whatever my reservations, the gorgeous orchestral writing makes this opera worth a hearing or two.
Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach and journalist.
see also review by Colin Clarke
Gorgeous orchestral writing makes this opera worth hearing.