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
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
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
see also review
by Colin Clarke
Gorgeous orchestral writing makes this opera worth hearing.