mon 04/12/2023

Juliana, Nova Music Opera, St John's Smith Square review - new version of a classic drama | reviews, news & interviews

Juliana, Nova Music Opera, St John's Smith Square review - new version of a classic drama

Juliana, Nova Music Opera, St John's Smith Square review - new version of a classic drama

Strindberg recast in the modern day is a showcase for young singing talent

Cheryl Enever and Samuel Pantcheff in Joseph Phibbs's 'Juliana' Still Moving Media, courtesy of Cheltenham Music Festival

Joseph Phibbs is not the first composer to make an opera out of Strindberg’s Miss Julie, and it is not difficult to see the operatic appeal of this taut, passionate three-handed drama.

But there are also hazards: my recollections of the play, reinforced by this operatic interpretation, were that for all the emotional huffing and puffing, not much actually happens, and the final, shocking denouement comes somewhat out of the blue.

Juliana, premiered this summer at the Cheltenham Festival, updates the action from 19th century feudal Sweden to the present day. The off-stage presence of the Count becomes "the Boss", Juliana’s multi-millionaire father and, it is revealed, her habitual sexual abuser. The rakish Juan, whose uncertain immigration status adds peril to his situation, seduces a more-than-willing Juliana, all watched over by the disapproving cook, Kerstin. After their cocaine-fuelled coupling they consider eloping, but instead Juan convinces Juliana to kill herself. (It’s not really clear why, except that she is an operatic heroine, and that is the fate of operatic heroines.)The cast of Joseph Phibbs's Juliana There was much to like about this production, most notably the singing and acting of the excellent young cast. Samuel Pantcheff (pictured above with Cheryl Enever and Rebecca Afonwy-Jones) as Juan was a charismatic stage presence, a louche and seductive figure in the first half, then revealed as something of a psychopath in the second. Cheryl Enever (Juliana) was mercurial, sexy and damaged, singing eloquently and powerfully in her rape monologue. The slightly thankless role of Kerstin was skillfully delivered by Rebecca Afonwy-Jones, particularly impressive in her quiet passages, where she maintained a tightly focused tone. All three were well-balanced with each other and confident in dealing with Phibbs’s angular melodic lines. Their diction was uniformly excellent – which became crucial during a temporary glitch in the surtitles.

Phibbs’s music (the composer pictured below), scored for an eight-piece ensemble, was imaginative and assured. The language was more tonal than in other works of his I’ve heard, but it had sufficient harmonic interest to keep me engaged. The characters’ passages of reflection were usually accompanied by drone textures – although the most effective was the passacaglia-like descending harmony (reminiscent of Dido and Aeneas) that accompanied Juan’s instructions to Juliana about her suicide, the most gorgeous music accompanying the most horrific words. The only major misjudgment, for me, was the use of pastiche Latin-style dance music, justified by Juan being Bolivian, which broke up the stylistic unity of the language and didn’t quite seem to gel. There was also a strange interlude in which Juan and Juliana, having generated enough sexual charge to want to go to bed together, suddenly paused for a long reflective duet, which seemed something of a passion-killer.

Joseph PhibbsThe libretto, by Laurie Slade, was mostly effective. It was succinct – and so many contemporary operas fail because of verbose texts – but the generally short lines limited Phibbs’s melodic opportunities. The addition of an epilogue scene (Strindberg ends with Miss Julie) in which a business-like Juan plans for the aftermath – a good idea in principle – was hampered by the decision to use rhyming couplets. Lines like “Couldn’t cope/Lost all hope” felt trite and out of keeping.

The éminence grise behind the whole project – the man behind Nova Music Opera and in front of the orchestra on the night – was George Vass. He conducted with authority and a strong sense of pacing, finding both colour and rhythmic punch in the scoring. He and his company – stage director Richard Williams was also integral to the commission – are to be applauded for promoting new opera, and for bringing this production to London after its Cheltenham premiere. Many of the great and the good of the music scene were at St John’s Smith Square on Sunday night, but the lack of younger faces must in part at least be accounted for by the cheapest seats being £25 – with no student discount.

There was much to like about this production, most notably the singing and acting of the excellent young cast


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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