We are remarkably lucky in Toronto to get as much contemporary opera as we do. Courtesy of groups like Tapestry and Soundstreams , it seems that two or three new pieces get performed every year. They tend to be home grown, which is fine but does mean we don’t often get a glimpse into what’s happening with new work in Europe. In fact, in the last few years, I think the only European contemporary piece I’ve seen in Toronto was Saariaho’s L’Amour de Loin. So, I was really pleased, courtesy of Soundstreams and CanStage to be able to see Philippe Boesmans’ Julie which opened last night at the Bluma Appel theatre.
It’s a rather grim piece based on Strindberg’s Miss Julie. It’s Johannesnacht and there’s a big party on the go. The aristocratic Julie is coming on strong to the valet Jean, which is not appreciated by his strait-laced fiancée Christine. It’s in the blood you see. Julie’s mother married above her station and went mad and these things, as Zola readers will know, are always hereditary. It ends badly.
Matthew Jocelyn’s production is given in English (though as far as I can see, no translator is credited). It’s a perfectly serviceable translation and doesn’t detract at all. The setting is somewhat updated from the original late 19th century setting but it hardly matters. All the action takes place in the kitchen so one fairly simple, literal set is used throughout. This is an actors’ rather than a singers’ piece with few opportunities for singing for singing’s sake. Christine, sung by Sharleen Joynt, gets a few opportunities for coloratura fireworks but that’s about it. Fortunately all three singers are fine actors and the chemistry between Julie (Lucia Cervoni) and Jean (Clarence Frazer) is very good. The net result is a taut, suspenseful piece that builds well to the tragic ending, which here is toned down a bit from the very visceral conclusion to Luc Bondy’s original production.
Musically, most of the interest comes from the pit. Boesmans uses an eighteen piece band, ably directed here by Les Dala, to produce an atonal but colourful and atmospheric sound picture which is very much at one with the drama. You won’t leave humming the tunes though.
All in all, it’s a very satisfying 75 minutes of taut musical melodrama with interesting orchestral music and some fine acting from the principals. It’s well worth seeing and runs until November 29th.
On a broader note, this is a good example of what can be done with fairly modest forces. Sometimes there seems to be a sort of donut shape to the Toronto scene with not much between the COC at the Four Seasons Centre and what has been described as “a piano and a tin cup”. That’s starting to change I think and it needs to. The future of contemporary opera as chamber opera was a major theme of my interview with Michael Mori back in September and I’ll be pursuing this theme further with Amanda Smith and Adam Scime very soon. Watch this space.
Photo credits: Cylla von Tiedemann