“Crazy, utterly crazy!” No, not Miss Julie’s outrageous behaviour, dancing and cavorting with the servants on Midsummer’s Eve, but that William Alwyn’s operatic take on August Strindberg’s play could have been so neglected since its 1977 premiere. Who decides the fate of new operas, whether they become part of the repertoire? Critics play a part, but the severest review I could find of the radio broadcast of the first performance is “periodic slackness” (Opera, October 1977). Thankfully, Sakari Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra were on hand at the Barbican to deliver a concert staging that could rehabilitate the opera.

Anna Patalong (Miss Julie) © BBC | Tom Howard
Anna Patalong (Miss Julie)
© BBC | Tom Howard

Strindberg’s plot is compact. On Midsummer’s Eve, with the Count away, his daughter, Miss Julie, flirts with his valet, Jean. After the dancing has stopped, the flirting continues. Jean warns her she’s playing with fire, but Miss Julie demands a kiss and they spend the night together. With dawn comes the realisation that her reputation – and his employment – are finished if the affair is discovered. They make plans to elope to Lugano and set up a hotel together, but when it transpires she has no money Jean coldly discards her; the only way out for Miss Julie is suicide.

Alwyn long considered an operatic setting of Miss Julie, having the initial idea in the 1930s. He set to work with librettist Christopher Hassall in 1954, but that effort splintered when Hassall insisted on fidelity to Strindberg’s text and Alwyn insisted the libretto was much condensed. “Opera needs the bare minimum of words,” he wrote, “for a glut of words holds up the action.” Eventually, Alwyn set his own libretto, making a number of twists to the play, introducing a fourth character – Ulrik, the gamekeeper – and changing the pet Miss Julie tries to take with her from a greenfinch (which Jean decapitates on the chopping block) to a pet dog (which Jean orders Ulrik to shoot dead).

Anna Patalong and Benedict Nelson in <i>Miss Julie</i> © BBC | Tom Howard
Anna Patalong and Benedict Nelson in Miss Julie
© BBC | Tom Howard

Perhaps a reason for the opera’s neglect is that Alwyn’s luscious, post-romantic music was considered too old-fashioned for the 1970s. Much of it could have been composed in the early 20th century. The opening scene is reminiscent of Ravel’s La Valse, a dance of death throbbing with desire in 3/4 time, but always with the feeling the music is about to implode – Miss Julie is playing a dangerous game. There’s Lulu, Firebird’s threatening double basses, a chatter of castanets à la Dance of the Seven Veils when Miss Julie asks Jean if she sees him as Salome, and an outrageous quotation from the Rosenkavalier trio which made me grin, played with ripe passion. Alwyn’s vocal writing is sympathetic, mostly lyrical, with just some passages where the BBCSO swamped the voices.

Anna Patalong led a very fine quartet of singers as Miss Julie, playing up to the femme fatale in a scarlet dress with a voluptuous soprano to match. She attacked the music with verve, top notes with a satin sheen when fantasising about escaping to Lugano – what lush harmonies Alwyn paints here – to completely win Jean over. That the baritone playing Jean is Patalong’s husband, Benedict Nelson, only added to the delight. Stepping in at ridiculously short notice to learn the score, Nelson’s firm tone and excellent diction drew out all the ambiguities in Jean’s character. Rosie Aldridge sang a feisty Kristin (the cook and Jean’s fiancée) while Samuel Sakker swaggered effectively as the drunken gamekeeper.

Benedict Nelson and Rosie Aldridge in <i>Miss Julie</i> © BBC | Tom Howard
Benedict Nelson and Rosie Aldridge in Miss Julie
© BBC | Tom Howard

Kenneth Richardson directed a simple concert staging, a row of music stands allowing the costumed cast to weave around the apron at the front of the stage, a crescent moon beamed onto the hall’s wall for the second scene. Richardson departed from Strindberg and Alwyn’s method of suicide, swapping Jean’s razor for the lethal concoction Kristin has prepared to keep the dogs away from her bitch.

The performance is due for broadcast on BBC Radio 3 this weekend, but the performers are also taking Miss Julie into the studio, to join the single existing recording (Lyrita). Rodney Milnes’ programme note in that first release concludes, “The fact that Miss Julie has not been staged by any one of the five companies well equipped to do so remains one of those inexplicable oddities of our operatic way of life.” Now that’s crazy.

****1