Julie/The Turn of the Screw, Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie, Brussels

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The Independent Culture

A hushed repeating drum-stroke opens Julie, Philippe Boesmans' latest one-act opera, premiered here.

A hushed repeating drum-stroke opens Julie, Philippe Boesmans' latest one-act opera, premiered here. It's like the first flickers of the St John's Eve fires, against whose festal flaming the voluptuous and fatal passions of Strindberg's hothouse tryst are enacted.

The collaboration between Belgium's most esteemed working opera-composer and Luc Bondy, the director of the Vienna Festwochen, dates back some time. Bondy adapted both Wintermärchen ( A Winter's Tale, recently recorded) and Reigen ( La Ronde) for Boesmans. The former yielded one of the most striking Shakespeare operas since Reimann's Lear and Oliver's Timon, while Reigen has resonances with Miss Julie, itself a sort of sexual La Ronde on a compact scale.

Both as social transgression (the mutual seduction of mistress and servant) and a depiction of raw sex's empty consequences, Julie scores as opera much as in the original. Bondy's gift here lies not so much in probing Strindberg's inner layers (despite three galvanising performances, a nicely nauseating kitchen set and capable lighting, I found this a shallowish treatment) as in evoking essential mood: best of all, through the jilted character of the cook/serving girl Kristin (the wonderful soprano Hendrickje van Kerckhove), who captures even better than the Swede Tove Dahlberg's let-your-hair-down Julie the ennui whose social norms these life-victims feel impelled to explode.

Another fine presence was the Italian baritone Davide Damiani, who endowed the ambitious lackey Jean - seduced or seducer, abuser or abused? - with a simmering Verdian anger. This triangle felt driven by ambiguities. Their indeterminate, slightly random nature was the production's drawback. A repetitiousness and some lack of invention didn't help.

Boesmans' score is replete with beguiling sounds. Whether this always delivered the drama's needed intensity, one doubts, but it could not have been better served than by the conductor Kazushi Ono.

A similar indeterminacy flawed Bondy's staging of The Turn of the Screw, also a co-production with Aix and the Vienna Festwochen. First-half direction of the children seemed lame, and shadowy lighting and unwieldy set adjustments off the point. Key lines were lost at times (not the fault of Patrick Davin's fine chamber players). Olivier Dumait's Prologue was out of tune. But later the staging (the church, the piano scene) came good, with witty, beneficial invention. Mireille Delunsch's Governess, impressive only latterly, was overshadowed by a splendid Mrs Grose (Hanna Schaer), Marie McLaughlin's forceful Miss Jessel and a quirky Quint from the American Marlin Miller.

'Julie', Vienna Festwochen, Austria (00 43 1 589 220), 23 & 24 May; 'Julie' and 'The Turn of the Screw', Aix-en-Provence Festival, France (00 33 4 4217 3400), 8 to 24 July

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