Philippe Boesmans’ opera Julie; libretto by Luc Bondy and Marie-Louise Bischolberger after Früken Julie by August Strindberg, is unremittingly bleak. In fact, if it lasted much longer than its 75 minutes I could well imagine audience members cutting their throats long before the title character. That said, it’s pretty compelling stuff. It’s a tight drama about a young aristocratic woman kicking against the constraints of her privileged life aided and abetted by her father’s rather spineless valet Jean; a suitable occupation as he is one of nature’s lackeys. The only likeable character is Jean’s young fiancée Kristin, a cook in the household. Buried in this simple melodramatic plot of lust, betrayal and suicide are all kinds of ideas about heredity, social class and behaviour. Broadly speaking the message is “The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate” and woe betide you if your plebeian mother married above herself.
Boesmans’ atonal score suits the action well. It’s easy enough to listen to but doesn’t exactly leave one humming the tunes. It’s highly atmospheric and well points up the psychological and moral disintegration of the principal characters. In the DVD recording, made at the Aix-en-Provence Festival in 2005, Julie is played by Swedish mezzo Malena Ernman; a passionate and intelligent advocate for contemporary opera. Her Julie starts out slutty and intensely sexual and goes through a devastating disintegration to despair and suicide. She’s very good indeed and has no problems at all with the musical side of things. Jean is sung by Garry Magee. It’s a bit of an ungrateful role. Spineless baddies usually are. But, he is solid and convincing and, appropriately, very hard to sympathise with. Kerstin Avemo, in the coloratura role of Kristin, has some of the toughest music and copes with it very well. She’s also pretty convincing as the one who never for a moment buys into Jean and Julie’s fantasies of a different kind of life. Kazushi Ono conducts with the Chamber Orchestra of La Monnaie in the pit.
Luc Bondy’s production is essentially naturalistic and, of its nature, intimate. Vincent Bataillon’s video direction follows that by focussing mainly on close ups of the main characters. He does pull back enough though to show the rather menacing use of shadow deployed by lighting designer Dominique Brugière. The sound (PCM stereo, DTS and Dolby Surround) and video quality are perfectly adequate but nothing special. The only extras on the disk are trailers for other Aix DVDs but the booklet, besides a synopsis, includes some interesting interview material. Subtitle options are French, English, German and Spanish. This disk is available separately or as part of a very good value boxed set of performances from Aix. The other three are an Entführing aus dem Serail with Malin Hartelius and Matthias Klink, a 2000 Coronation of Poppea with Anne-Sofie von Otter and a 2003 La Traviata with Mireille Delunsch and Matthew Polenzani.
Joking about how depressing this is aside, this is a very interesting little chamber opera. The performances are excellent and it’s well worth a look for anyone with an interest in contemporary opera. Toronto folk will also get a chance to see the piece later this year when it’s presented by Soundstreams and Canadian Stage.