By James Karas
August Strindberg’s 1888 one–act tragedy Miss Julie has inspired numerous adaptations and productions including several operas. Belgian composer Philippe Boesmans composed a one-act chamber opera in 2005 based on a libretto by Swiss director Luc Bondy and director and playwright Marie-Louise Bischofberger which was produced in a number of European cities with considerable success.
That did not put it on the radar of any North American opera or theatre company except for Matthew Jocelyn, Canadian Stage’s Artistic and General Director. Jocelyn has made it his mission to expand Torontonians’ theatrical horizons, come hell or high water and he has seen both over the last five years. But he has not lost his nerve and is forging full speed ahead.
Lucia Cervoni and Clarence Frazer in Julie. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann
Julie, as the opera is called, has now received its North American premiere at the Bluma Appel Theatre in a production by Canadian Stage in association with Soundstreams, a major presenter of new Canadian music.
The interaction among the three characters of the play has many layers and complex motivations but the central issue is sexual attraction. Julie (Lucia Cervoni) is the daughter of a Count and she is sexually attracted to Jean (Clarence Frazer), the valet. Jean has a relationship with the servant Christine (Sharleen Joynt) and we have a ménage á trois with a difference.
Boesmans’ avant-garde music shapes and punctuates the dialogue of the three characters and it is shaped by it. There is obviously a large variety of musical phrases but the diction of the dialogue is maintained. Mezzo soprano Cervoni, baritone Frazer and soprano Joynt handle their roles vocally with ease and their characterization is sound.
Jean and Julie consummate their relationship with utter good taste without allowing their lust to shock the censors and cause them to forbid public performances as it did when the play was first produced. As may be expected, the relationship does not work out, and in the play Jean gives Julie a straight razor and she goes off the stage with it in her hand. In the opera he gives her an extension cord and in the final tableau we see her in silhouette wrapping the cord around her neck. Very effective.
Sharleen Joynt and Clarence Frazer in Julie. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann
Musical Director Leslie Dala conducts the 18-piece chamber ensemble adroitly through Boesmans’ largely unfamiliar musical style where what we associate with traditional opera is left out completely. Don’t look for Puccini or Verdi, in other words.
Set Designer Alain Lagarde provides a black curtain for background which acts as a mirror as well. The kitchen set is good and it provides the “naturalism” that Strindberg wanted without being slavishly realistic.
The driving force behind the production is Matthew Jocelyn for bringing a work that has the familiarity and approachability of a play that was written in 1888 with the unknownness of a recent, avant-garde work that is being produced here for the first time.
Do you want to compliment or criticise him for this or just leave it hanging?
Julie by Philippe Boesmans (music), Luc Bond and Marie-Louise Bischofberger (libretto) adapted from August Strindberg play, opened on November 17 and will run until November 29, 2015 at the Bluma Appel Theatre, St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts,
27 Front Street East, Toronto, Ontario. www.canstage.com