Alwyn: Miss Julie

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Alwyn
LABELS: Lyrita
WORKS: Miss Julie
PERFORMER: Jill Gomez, Benjamin Luxon, Delia Jones, John Mitchinson Philharmonia/Vilem Tausky
CATALOGUE NO: SRCD 2218 ADD Reissue
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’.

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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