Vilified and banned though it may have been in initially, Strindberg’s Miss Julie (1888) has more than made up any lost ground during the 20th century. Operatic treatments since the end of the Second World War include those by Ned Rorem (1965; issued by Albany), Antonio Bibalo (1973), William Alwyn (1976; twice recorded, by Lyrita and Chandos) and Philippe Boesmans (2005), and there is also a ballet by Ture Rangström. Joseph Phibbs’ acutely observed chamber operatic version was jointly commissioned by Nova Music Opera and the Presteigne and Cheltenham festivals, at which last-named it was premiered in July 2018.
Laurie Slade’s libretto pares back the action while updating it in 21st-centruy terms, with speedboats, mobile phones and cocaine. The unseen (and unheard) Count is reworked as the billionaire businessman, Boss, his daughter Julie becomes Juliana, the housekeeper Kristine transmutes into Kerstin and the duplicitous servant Jean to the Bolivian ex-drug mule, Juan. The plot remains the same in most essentials but Phibbs and Slade’s smaller-scale treatment zeroes in on each character with laser-like accuracy. However, Kerstin does not intervene to place obstacles in the way of the elopement of Juliana and Juan, which miscarries through natural causes. Her inevitable suicide (offstage) is rendered ghastlier by her revealing that Boss has been abusing her.
The performance is as sharp as the updated libretto.
Zoe Drummond is suitably flighty and capricious in the first half as Juliana, but more fragile later. Her love duet with Juan, strongly sung by Felix Kemp, is beautifully achieved and something of that glow remains ‘after the event’ in scene 9, while the lovers plan their escape. Rebecca Afonwy-Jones is convincing as the jilted Kerstin, even though robbed of the more critical part Strindberg had allotted her.
The Nova Music Opera Ensemble – all eight players – accompany flawlessly, directed with his customary exemplary sensitivity by George Vass.
Resonus’ sound is beautifully clear.