Classical reviews: Miss Julie Theatre Royal, Norwich

The great thing about Wednesday's performance of William Alwyn's opera Miss Julie was that it ever took place. It was first recorded for BBC Radio 3 in 1977. With a cast of only four, and a medium-sized orchestra, Strindberg's drama of the ill-fated affair between an aristocratic lady and her valet would, one might have thought, have presented an attractive proposition for one of our major opera houses, constantly in the throes of financial crises. In fact, Wednesday saw the work's first ever professionally staged production - at the Theatre Royal, Norwich, 20 years after its broadcast premiere, and 12 years after the composer's death.

Alwyn himself wrote the libretto, paring down Strindberg's already concise drama to its barest essentials. He leaves out the ballet and chorus, but introduces an extra character - Ulrik, a bawdy drunken gamekeeper - as a cynical, chorus-like commentator on the scene.

Vocally, Alwyn set the text to "adhere to the rhythm and inflexion of human speech", to use his own words. This works successfully for most of the time. The text is almost always audible, and much of the vocal writing is extremely effective. The valet Jean's high baritone captures his assertive self-confidence: passionate lyricism and high-leaping intervals emphasise Miss Julie's volatile insecurity.

Away from moments of dramatic intensity, however, the vocal line can sound very angular. In the interests of clarity, Alwyn has eschewed ensembles wherever possible, although when they do occur - as in the brief trio in Act 2 between Jean, Ulrik, and Kristin, the cook - the writing is very effective.

As one would expect from such an experienced composer (best known for his film scores, including Odd Man Out, The Fallen Idol and The History of Mr Polly), it is a good score, firmly rooted in the early 20th century, with more than a whiff of Strauss, Janacek and, especially, Ravel. But the orchestra does often appear to bombard the vocal line with too many musical ideas of its own, distracting one's mind from the narrative flow.

In Ben Luxon and Peter Wilson's excellent production, it makes for an extremely effective piece of music drama. Judith Howarth as Miss Julie and Karl Daymond as Jean sang superbly, easily projecting over the rich scoring, their impressive stage presence heightened by Hollywood good looks. Excellent singing and characterisation too from Fiona Kimm's cook and Ian Caley's Ulrik, and fine playing from the Britten Sinfonia under Nicholas Cleobury.

Whether it has to wait another 20 years for its next staging is anyone's guess. At just under two and a half hours, it's a trifle short for a full- length opera and a little too long for a double-bill, but, on this showing, a good piece of theatre.

Second performance, 7.30pm tomorrow, Theatre Royal, Norwich. Booking: 01603 630000

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