In basing his new chamber opera on Miss Julie, the ground-breaking drama that August Strindberg dashed off in a fortnight in 1888, the Belgian composer Philippe Boesmans joins a long queue of people mesmerised by its tormented, proto-feminist heroine. Kenneth MacMillan built a ballet round her; Maggie Smith and Helen Mirren have played her on stage; Frank McGuinness and Patrick Marber have penned translations; at least three composers have already turned her story into an opera.
Adumbrating Lady Chatterley, Strindberg's heroine falls for a rough servant, but she goes one better by taking her own life rather than face disgrace when the chips are down. She's a case study in paranoia, and at the same time the product of her creator's fevered imagination: Strindberg projected onto her both his own jealous fantasies – his wife played Miss Julie opposite an actor he thought was cuckolding him – and also his now very un-PC horror of liberated women. But he also admired that she slits her wrists: what he called "the nobleman's hara-kiri, the Japanese law of inner conscience".
Michael McCarthy's production for Music Theatre Wales unfolds at the servants' quarters of a stately home. Boesmans takes his cue from Strindberg's requirement that the acting should be naturalistic, but he doesn't deal in set-piece arias and duets: his mode is conversational, with events unfolding in a sequence of short, terse episodes.
His music is obliquely tonal, with hints of Mahler at luridly climactic moments, and echoes of the Thirties French film composer Georges Auric. He underscores the drama suggestively, for example letting the strings echo the detumescence of the lovers after their doomed clinch. As performed by contralto Arlene Rolph as Julie and baritone Andrew Rupp as her valet Jean, that clinch is powerfully erotic. Along with soprano Emma Gane as a girlish maid, all three performers are well up to the score's demands.
The story moves with a sure pace: its closing image of suicide is a moment of quintessentially Japanese delicacy and restraint. This work may be more music-theatre than opera, but it has an unusual purity and integrity of purpose.
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