William ALWYN (1905-1985)
Miss Julie (1973-76) [114:42]
Opera in Two Acts. Based on the play by August Strindberg (1849 – 1912)
Anna Patalong (soprano) – Miss Julie; Benedict Nelson (bass-baritone) – Jean, the Count’s valet; Rosie Aldridge (mezzo-soprano) – Kristin, the cook; Samuel Sakker (tenor) – Ulrik, the gamekeeper.
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Sakari Oramo
rec. 2019, Phoenix Concert Hall, Fairfield Halls, Croydon, UK DSD
CHANDOS CHSA5253(2) SACD [60:39 + 54:03]
William Alwyn’s opera Miss Julie had a long gestation period; as Rodney Milnes pointed out in his excellent notes which accompanied the work’s premiere recording, he first considered the idea in the 1930s. Then, in 1954 he did some serious preliminary work to devise a libretto, working with Christopher Hassall, but that project came to naught because the two of them couldn’t agree on an approach to Strindberg’s play. Finally, Alwyn undertook the project alone in the early 1970s, crafting his own libretto as well as writing the music. As both Milnes and Andrew Palmer, the author of the absorbing Chandos notes, point out, Alwyn brought to the project his very considerable experience as a composer of film music. This he did in two principal ways. Firstly, and perhaps most obviously, he had learned from his film career how to make the orchestra comment on and illuminate the action effectively and concisely. Secondly, and just as crucially, he’d also absorbed the importance of taut scripts. The construction of the libretto is clear and direct and the action moves forward purposefully. There are a few significant solo passages that could be counted as arias but these are not stop-the-show numbers; rather, they arise naturally from the action and lead, just as naturally, into the next phase of the action.
Alwyn completed work on Miss Julie in 1976 and the first performance was a BBC studio recording on 17 February 1977, which was broadcast a few months later. In January 1979 the conductor of that BBC premiere, Vilem Tausky, and three of the original soloists, Jill Gomez, Benjamin Luxon and Della Jones, were reunited for a Lyrita studio recording. The only change from the original cast was that for the recording John Mitchinson sang the role of Ulrik, replacing Anthony Rolfe Johnson. I remember buying that recording on LP and I later ‘upgraded’ when it was issued on CD (review)
The action of Miss Julie is set in the Swedish country house of a Count on Midsummer Night in 1895. The Count is away – he never makes an appearance. In Act I, his daughter Julie, successfully seduces Jean despite the fact that he has an ‘understanding’ with Kristin, the cook. In this Act large parts of the exchanges between Julie and Jean are set to ripe and passionate music. If Act I is dominated by passion, Act II seems like a series of volcanic arguments involving Kristin and Jean, Julie and Jean and, to a lesser extent, between Ulrik and Jean. In this Act we see the calculating, pragmatic side of Jean as he persuades Julie to take advantage of her father’s absence to steal money so that they can run away together – she is desperate to run away to avoid shame after spending the night with a servant while he sees her as his meal ticket. Along the way we learn of Julie’s difficult upbringing during which her father drove her mother to suicide, for which she can never forgive him. At the opera’s dénouement, Jean realises his selfish solution lies in persuading Julie to take her own life, just as her mother did; thus, mother and daughter both took a tragic way out of an impossible situation. In that thumbnail sketch I have significantly compressed what was already a taut plot. It is, I think, a great achievement on Alwyn’s part that in about 115 minutes of music he condenses Strindberg’s drama but still constructs a compelling narrative and, additionally, fashions credible, interesting characters. His other great achievement is to set the libretto to full-blooded music that really tells the story and, even when there is no visual element, holds the listener’s attention throughout.
I imagine that most people will know only the music of Miss Julie because it hasn’t enjoyed
many staged productions. I’ve read that it was first staged in 1992 in Copenhagen, though that may be incorrect; Andrew Palmer doesn’t mention that in his authoritative notes and cites a British stage premiere in Norwich in 1997, directed by Benjamin Luxon, as the only staged production to date. Personally, I would have thought the opera would be ideal for smaller-sized houses such as Wexford, Garsington, Longborough or Glyndebourne.
This new Chandos recording was made under studio conditions in the few days after a live concert performance at the Barbican which was warmly greeted by my Seen and Heard colleague, Claire Seymour (review). One notable feature of the cast is that Benedict Nelson, who happens to be Anna Patalong’s husband, was drafted in at a few days’ notice to replace an indisposed colleague in the role of Jean. I believe he learned the hugely demanding role from scratch in just a short period of concentrated study. All I can say is that, listening to this recording, one would never guess at those stressful circumstances.
In Act I Rosie Aldridge offers a wholly credible portrayal of Kristin. Her early exchanges with Benedict Nelson are full of energy. Aldridge reappears in Act II, after Jean has enjoyed a night of passion with Julie. She’s excellent in conveying the betrayal she feels, but Kristin’s sense of betrayal is as much to do with outrage that Julie and Jean have shattered the conventions of the demarcation between Upstairs and Downstairs. I liked Rosie Aldridge’s contributions very much and felt that she was completely inside her character.
Ulrik, the gamekeeper also features in each Act but his is the smallest role. In fact, Alwyn invented this character; to tauten the drama he used Ulrik to take the place of Strindberg’s chorus of villagers. On his first appearance in Act I, Ulrik is very much the worse for wear and comes across as a fairly insignificant character. In Act II a more scheming, malevolent side of Ulrik is revealed as he threatens to spill the beans to the Count, having guessed at what has gone on overnight between Julie and Jean. Samuel Sakker sings the part well but I can’t help feeling that he misses some of the characterisation that’s essential if Ulrik is to be more than a cardboard cut-out figure.
No one could say that the two principal characters are cardboard cut-outs. Alwyn created two very strong and complex characters. Benedict Nelson is superb as Jean, allowing himself – rather willingly – to be seduced by Miss Julie in Act I and responding with increasing ardour to her invitations. In this part of the opera he becomes ever more the big, romantic lead and one can understand all too readily why Julie has set her cap at him. Nelson manages the Act II change in Jean’s character very convincingly. In Act I he’d planted in Julie’s head a romantic dream of the two of them running away to open an hotel in Lugano. In Act II he makes it brutally clear that the fulfilment of this dream relies upon Julie providing the cash; if she’s to do that she’ll need to steal from her father. Nelson gives a hard-hearted, pragmatic portrayal. Whether as ardent lover or cynical betrayer looking out for himself, he comes across convincingly and his singing is terrific. Memories of Benjamin Luxon are not banished, but Nelson gives a performance to rival Luxon’s and he brings his own insights to the part. As I indicated earlier, there is no sign whatsoever that this was a role he had learned at short notice.
Anna Patalong gives a memorable portrayal of Miss Julie. Alwyn gave his soprano some of the plum moments in the score and Ms Patalong never fails to deliver. Her singing of the big Act I solo, ‘If you want to climb’ does full justice to Alwyn’s passionate music and towards the end of that Act she joins with Nelson in an ecstatic dream of what life in Lugano could be like. But if anything, her achievement - and Alwyn’s achievement in terms of musical character development – is even greater in Act II. Here we learn the tragic story of Julie’s mother, related by Anna Patalong in such a way that our sympathies are fully engaged. We also see the naivety of Julie. You might well say that she’s been naïve from the start but nowhere is this aspect of her character better illustrated than when she seeks to enlist Kristin to come along with her and Jean, offering her the post of cook in the Lugano hotel – where she proposes to swan around as the hostess! At the end of the opera she’s pathetically but movingly grateful to Jean for suggesting that she follow her mother’s example and escape her situation by taking her own life. Anna Patalong is dramatically convincing as every strand of Julie’s character is revealed and her singing per se is vivid, communicative and often very beautiful. This performance is a triumph for her.
There’s one other principal character in Miss Julie: the orchestra. Anyone who knows William Alwyn’s five symphonies will be well aware of his skill and resourcefulness in writing for a large orchestra. I venture to suggest, though, that this opera represents his finest achievement as an orchestral composer. From first note to last the scoring is fabulous. The way Alwyn uses his orchestra is wonderfully inventive and colourful. There are passages of warm, full-blooded romantic writing and there are also episodes where the orchestration demonstrates the utmost refinement. The score teems with incident and invention but the detail is never there for its own sake, nor does the orchestral writing distract from what’s going on onstage. Rather, the orchestral writing enhances, comments upon and develops the dramatic mis-en-scène. In Miss Julie Alwyn enlists the orchestra among the dramatis personae in the same way that Richard Strauss and Janáček did in their operas and he proves to be their equal. The BBC Symphony Orchestra plays the score superbly and the rich, detailed Chandos sound makes the most of their contribution.
Sakari Oramo’s conducting seems to me to be flawless. I’m putting the finishing touches to writing this review the day after watching him conduct Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ symphony at the BBC Proms. I was somewhat disappointed by that performance; Oramo didn’t seem to me to dig deeply enough into the score, especially in the slow movement. I have no such reservations here. Oramo displays total command of the score, moving the action forward with great drive and purpose and always giving the big moments their full due. There are also one or two instances – I think of the waltz material that is much in evidence in Act I – where he seems to display a (beneficially) lighter touch than Vilem Tausky in the Lyrita version. Oramo has often impressed me on disc – and in live performances too - but I think this is one of the best recordings he’s yet made. I recall that he conducted Alwyn’s First Symphony at the 2014 Proms (review); might he now be tempted, I wonder, to investigate more of the composer’s music? I think he’d do it well.
Chandos have done this performance proud. The recorded sound is magnificent. The engineers allow all the intricacies and subtleties of Alwyn’s scoring to come out and also provide sound that has presence and impact so that the full-on passages really open out. An excellent balance has been achieved between singers and orchestra. I listened to the stereo layer of these SACDs and was mightily impressed. As is always the case with this label, the documentation is first-rate. Andrew Palmer’s comprehensive notes provide an excellent introduction to the opera and, for those who have the Lyrita discs, complement Rodney Milnes’ notes and the other essays there.
This new recording of Miss Julie is a formidable achievement. That said, the 1979 Lyrita recording still has an awful lot going for it. The recording itself, made in London’s Kingsway
Hall and engineered by Kenneth Wilkinson of Decca fame, still sounds very good indeed. Lyrita assembled a very strong cast which hasn’t a single weakness. Jill Gomez gave a splendid performance in the title role but Anna Patalong has a richer timbre, which gives her the edge, I think. The one element of casting that is stronger in the Lyrita account lies in the smallest of the four roles. Samuel Sakker sings well on the Chandos recording but I fancy John Mitchinson had greater experience under his belt and he characterises the role of Ulrik more individually, especially on the gamekeeper’s first appearance when he is decidedly tipsy. The Lyrita set still has many rewards and no one who already has the Lyrita set should dream of discarding it. If you’re an Alwyn enthusiast, do you need two recordings of this opera? Without a doubt, especially when both are so fine.
However, this new version of Miss Julie is one that all admirers of William Alwyn’s music should consider as a mandatory purchase. For those coming new to the opera it is the first choice now, despite the excellence of the Lyrita set, which has served Alwyn well for four decades. As you listen to this superb new recording, whether the music is familiar to you or not, you will surely wonder why it is not more frequently heard in Britain’s opera houses. There are not all that many truly great British operas but I think this fine new recording forcibly makes the case that Miss Julie belongs firmly in that select number.