Julie (Music Theatre Wales) - Royal Opera House Linbury Studio, 3 November 2007
Although Philippe Boesmans isn't yet up there with Jacques Brel and Eddy Merckx in the tiny pantheon of Famous Belgians, perhaps this Music Theatre Wales production of his Julie, surprisingly the first ever UK production of any of his operas, will be a shove in the right direction.
Cunningly avoiding the main pitfall of many new operas - a rubbish plot - Boesmans has lifted his from an acknowledged masterpiece, Strindberg's Miss Julie. Furthermore, he has engaged as librettist Luc Bondy, a man who despite starting out as a mime artist knows a thing or two about opera.
In their pared-down version, the aristocratic Julie seduces her father's valet Jean into a quickie on the kitchen table. He puts up little resistance because, as he confesses, he has wanted her secretly since childhood. Or rather, wanted some posh totty to give him the leg up into society he so desperately craves.
But Julie now wants more. In fact Julie wants to run away with him, pet canary in one hand, suitcase full of daddy's cash in the other. Jean, despite his dreams of running a hotel in Switzerland (I hmm'd here too...wasn't it the rather more glamorous Italy in Strrindberg?) bottles it, preferring to carry on shining his master's boots. Distraught in the realisation that she can't live with her shame, Julie does herself in with a plastic knife and fake blood capsule. Servant Christine, Jean's putative fiancee, provides the commentary.
Seventy five minutes of not much action but a relentless emotional intensity, painted in miniaturist detail by Boesmans. His loose-textured arrangements for the eighteen piece orchestral ensemble are sparing, rarely bringing all musicians together, but richly varied. The focus is always on the singers, and the music dances in perfect time with the text (a fine translation by Anna Herklotz).
The device of mounting the action on a separate box-like stage-within-a-stage was a simple way of keeping the orchestra visible behind, while emphasising the protagonists' bounded existences.
Julie is the inevitable centre of the drama, and Arlene Rolph made her sympathetic yet exasperating, transitioning flawlessly from reckless, flirtatious charm to vulnerability and desperation. Andrew Rupp's oafish Jean and Emma Gane's put-upon Christine sprang vividly to life. The mostly conversational nature of the singing gave few opportunities for vocal bravura, and the cast were occasionally drowned out as the orchestra swelled, but the dramatic performances gripped throughout. This was real 'music theatre', a synthesis not a battle, as the ensemble's name implies.