Alwyn: Miss Julie

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

LABELS: Lyrita
WORKS: Miss Julie
PERFORMER: Jill Gomez, Benjamin Luxon, Delia Jones, John Mitchinson Philharmonia/Vilem Tausky
Whatever made William Alwyn think he could make an opera out of Strindberg’s stark tragedy? Where the Swede succeeded in forging an elemental drama out of a single skirmish in the sex/class war (using, as he boasted, ‘just three characters, a table, two chairs and no sunrise!’) and then compressed it into an unbroken 90-minute span, the Englishman padded it out to two acts and two hours of music (plus interval), added an extra character and swamped the whole farrago in an overheated, souped-up score that starts at boiling point and has nowhere left to go. Worse, given Alwyn’s Janacek-like pronouncements about making the music spring from the rhythm of the words, is the simple fact that he clearly had no ear for the way people actually speak: his entire cast, whether below or above stairs, drunk or sober, all talk in the same genteel middle-class tones. Strindberg’s brutal kitchen-sink drama is reduced to a petit-bourgeois potboiler — a cosy ‘modern’ opera for those whose idea of good theatre is a nice afternoon play on Radio 4. You can almost hear the prurient glee with which the septuagenarian composer set those naughty words ‘knickers’ and ‘bum’.


This 1979 recording gives as good as it gets: orchestral balance is, if anything, too revealing of Alwyn’s garish palette; Mitchinson, as the dirty-mouthed, ditty-singing gamekeeper, offers a Tristan in matelot mode; Luxon cloaks the servile, self-serving valet Jean beneath his usual bluff Victorian balladeer bonhomie; while Jill Gomez, even back then, was understandably overstretched by the stratospheric screechings of a title role whose unrewarding difficulties thankfully make a live staging unlikely. Mark Pappenheim