Juliana: a ‘naturalistic tragedy’ for our times

In the Preface to his 1888 play, Miss Julie, August Strindberg argued for a new, less artificial form of dialogue – associative, flowing naturally, as in life: ‘I have avoided the symmetrical, mathematical in the fabricated French dialogue and let the minds work irregularly as they do in reality, where in a conversation no topic is ever concluded but one mind finds in the other a chance cog to engage in.  And this is why the dialogue must also wander about, gathering material in the opening scenes that is later worked over, picked up, repeated, digressed, expounded like the theme of a musical composition.’

The allusion to musical form – and the process of exposition, reprise, development and transformation of musical motif and theme – is an interesting one.  And, perhaps one might suggest that the claustrophobic intensity and torturous character-dynamics of Strindberg’s 1888 ‘naturalistic tragedy’ are essentially ‘operatic’ – both extravagantly theatrical and proceeding with the taut inevitability of the turn of a screw?  For, the struggle for sexual pre-eminence between a young woman whose parents have used her as a pawn in their own gender-conflicts and an ambitious young man who is her social inferior, but who sees his sexuality as a means by which to achieve social ascendancy, can only end one way – in tragedy.

It is Midsummer’s Eve.  The sole means by which Miss Julie, the bored, troubled daughter of a Count, can rebel against the bourgeois boundaries which control and constrain her life is through her sensuality.  So, compelled by a misguided yearning to break through the limits of what society deems her ‘natural’ gender and class stations, she transgresses propriety by entering the kitchen quarters of her father’s house, seeking the handsome manservant, Jean, for whom male sexuality is a means to advancement.  The housekeeper, Kristin, looks on disapprovingly as the lovers engage in a night of passion which becomes a battle of spirits only the fittest will survive.

Certainly, many composers have been drawn to Strindberg’s oppressive three-hander.  And, to the operatic settings by Ned Rorem (1965 rev. 1978), Antonio Bibalo (1975), William Alwyn (1977), Margareta Hallim (1990) and Philippe Boesmans (2005), and perhaps others, composer Joseph Phibbs and librettist Laurie Slade have added their own: Juliana, a chamber opera in thirteen scenes whichwas jointly commissioned by Nova Music Opera and the Cheltenham and Presteigne festivals and first performed by Nova Music Opera, conducted by George Vass, in July 2018 at the Parabola Arts Centre, Cheltenham as part of the 2018 Cheltenham Music Festival.

Though he is an experienced composer of vocal music, Juliana is Joseph Phibbs’ first opera, and when – in (online) conversation with Joe and Laurie – I ask him what it was about Miss Julie that was both appealing and challenging, he turns first to practical matters: Strindberg’s play lasts about 90 minutes, preserves the unities of time and place, and has just three characters – ideal qualities for a chamber opera.  Joe has scored the work for an ensemble of flute (doubling piccolo), clarinet (doubling bass clarinet) two violins, cello, double bass, harp and percussion.  On the Resonus Classics recording of the opera that is released this month, the role of Juliana is sung by soprano Zoe Drummond, with Kerstin played by mezzo-soprano Rebecca Afonwy-Jones and Juan by baritone Felix Kemp, accompanied by Vass and Nova Music Opera Ensemble.

In response to my query as to how the project had come about, Joe explains that he and Laurie, friends for many years, had been looking for an opportunity to work together and, when the commission arrived, were prompted by Laurie’s recent modern adaptation of Strindberg’s The Father at the Trafalgar Studios to consider the playwright’s other work.  The Father wouldn’t work with just three characters – plus the oppressive unseen presence of Juliana’s father, in Juliana embodied by the glockenspiel’s jangling telephone bell and dark, insistent, percussive rhythms – but, Miss Julie was perfect.

Joseph Phibbs (courtesy of Ricordi)

Joe laughs that he began the composition of his new opera “just worrying about the notes!”, but the first few months of the collaboration were spent working together on the libretto, aiming to maintain dramatic authenticity while reducing the length of the text; Laurie estimates that the libretto is about one quarter the length of playscript.  They have transposed the action from the country estate of a Swedish Count in the late nineteenth century to a waterside residence in modern-day Sweden owned by a multi-millionaire businessman known to his employees as The Boss, and to his privileged, pampered daughter, Juliana, simply as Papa.  Excepting some updating of the details – rather than stoking their sensual yearnings with a glass of the Count’s best vintage, Juan, the Boss’s Bolivian chauffeur, and Juliana snort cocaine – the trajectory of Strindberg’s drama is essentially retained.

Laurie, who describes Strindberg as “a dramatic innovator but also a classicist, a master of the ‘art of the play’”, is an experienced adaptor of literary texts with, in addition to the aforementioned The Father, adaptations of Gogol’s Marriage and two stories by Karen Blixen in his credits.  Working on the libretto for Juliana involved immersing himself in Strindberg’s play, which dates from the fertile middle period of the playwright’s career.  “It’s a naturalistic drama in its critique of bourgeois relationships which distorts natural balances,” he comments.  “Miss Julie reverses the gender-power dynamics of The Father.  It is the rich woman who begins in a position of power, but by the end bourgeois social and sexual boundaries have been reinforced, destroying – with total lack of compassion – Miss Julie’s natural vitality.  The characters are ‘damaged people’, fatally so in Julie’s case, trapped in a Darwinian fight for survival.”

It’s not unusual to see Strindberg’s late-nineteenth-century setting updated in the theatre, though I wonder if the structures and value system within which Strindberg’s Miss Julie and Jean are trapped – dying aristocratic hierarchies of class and gender – can be transplanted to the modern age, or if they are too anchored in a specific time and space?  After all, Kristin – the cook and Jean’s fiancée – does not condemn Julie and Jean for their unfaithfulness and betrayal but because they have committed an unimaginable transgression of class order.

“Money is the new class,” responds Laurie.  “Money is power – so in our updating, the power of aristocracy is replaced by that of plutocracy.  And, the children of the rich are just as divorced from today’s economic realities of life as the daughters of the landed gentry were in Strindberg’s day.  When Juan plans their elopement, he worries about how they will make a living; she’s preoccupied with what she will wear!”  Strindberg’s characterisation is complex: Julie is both classical heroine and deluded anti-heroine; Jean is abusive and manipulative, but strangely vulnerable when he humbles himself in servility to the Count.  With whom do Joe and Laurie imagine the audience’s sympathies will lie?  “I think they will have sympathy for both Juliana and Juan,” suggests Laurie.  “They are both victims of life’s circumstances.”

Laurie Slade (courtesy of MBA Literary Agents)

Kerstin is someone with whom we might identify, “a witness to the fight to the death which she is powerless to prevent,” he adds.  She has a choric role, Laurie explains, acting as a commentator.  This is most notable in the form of her observations about the young couples who indulgent in night-time speedboat racing, a subplot about the recklessness of hedonism which is introduced in the opening moments of the play, and which – to the skidding whirl of percussive harp-glissandi – interrupts the Midsummer magic with destructive horror, prompting Kerstin’s prayer, “Dear God/ Can’t you save us/ From the danger we are to each other/ The damage we do to ourselves?”  I wonder if this sub-plot serves as a substitute for Strindberg’s intermittent chorus of carousing farmhands whose crude song accompanies the off-stage lovemaking of Julie and Jean which violates the social order?  “Yes, it’s a kind of darker version of the Midsummer Party,” agrees Laurie.  And, it marks the tragic peripety with no less clarity and irreversibility. 

But, Joe adds that Kerstin is also associated with the natural world, which is itself a reflection of God, and her musical sound-world conveys this, the softly layered strings creating a cushioning warmth for her meditations and faith.  By contrast, Juan is a coiled spring of percussive energy, all crunchy sounds – maracas, snare drums, bongos, snapping double bass pizzicatos – and Latino rhythms.  His seductiveness is signalled by sultry clarinet motifs, which also echo the darker menace of the bass clarinet which is repeatedly associated with The Boss, as in Scene 2 when the deferential and awe-struck Juan describes his employer’s business prowess.

The musical characterisation of Juliana is more complex.  “Juliana has a wide-range,” explains Joe.  “With her first entry we sense her vulnerability,” he suggests, and the piccolo ‘chirruping’ above harp and glockenspiel is indeed a fragile accompaniment to Juliana’s off-stage portentous musings, “Little bird,/ Little Man,/ Little yellow bird man,/ If only real men/ Could sing as sweetly as you.”  “But, at other times she is difficult, or flirtatious, or childlike,” continues Joe.  So, as Juliana strives to maintain her power, seeking to force Kerstin and Juan to bend to her will, spiky woodwind trills, the literal crack of the whip, and ironic rejoinders by the clarinet, convey both her volatility and the futility of her commands.  Then, when she excitedly imagines that her life can be enrichened by a new start with Juan, away from her father’s control, large leaps in her legato vocal line and animation in the instrumental parts are balanced by a gentle colour palette.

Cheryl Enever (Juliana) and Samuel Pantcheff (Juan) at the Parabola Arts Centre, Cheltenham, in July 2018 (c) Laurie Slade

One thing that Joe was sure of was that the vocal lines should not be declamatory in style but should have a lyrical quality, allowing for extended reflections on the characters’ emotions and situations, and that these ‘aria-like’ moments would contrast with more discursive episodes that pushed the drama forward.  “Laurie’s libretto is subtle,” he remarks, “and provides different types of writing that I was able to tap into.  At times it’s conversational, elsewhere poetic.  But it’s always concise, which enabled me to create extended vocal meditations and themes.” 

Joe and Laurie hope very much to work on more collaborations in the near future. In this instance, “there were two things I insisted upon,” grins Laurie.  “That the opera had a love duet and a mad scene!”  Joe duly obliged.  The love duet in Scene 5, ‘Moonlight’, captures all of what Laurie describes as “the intoxication of Midsummer Eve”, the lovers’ dreams tenderly proffered, Juliana’s longing to fall, “To bury myself in the earth”, juxtaposed with Juan’s desire to climb, “To the highest branch”.  Listening to this duet it’s clear that the text makes space for the music to capture the timelessness of this moment: “we’ll stay there forever” they sing, the slow homophony unfolding in consonant harmonies which, for that moment, make their dreams tangible.

The ending of Strindberg’s Miss Julie is problematic, and many critics have found the tension between its brutal determinism and tragic classicism to be ambiguous, even confusing.  In the final scene, Miss Julie – who has previously blamed her mother for the feminist upbringing (she was made to dress as a boy, and the duties and routines of life on the estate subverted gender conventions) which has left her hating men and determined ‘never to be a slave to any man’ – comes to realise that it is her father, whom she thought she loved, who has made her feel contempt for her own sex, ‘as a half-woman and half-man’.  She is ‘guilty’ but not ‘responsible’, she declares, her fate determined by others, though some have argued that she ‘chooses’ suicide, and thus gains dignity. 

Juliana offers a different account of the familial past.  From the first, Kerstin seeks to assuage the grief that Juliana still bears following her mother’s death, and in her ‘mad scene’, Juliana divulges that she is the victim of abuse by a father who makes her dress in her dead mother’s clothes and then strips her and rapes her.  Laurie explains that, in streaming and simplifying Strindberg’s play, he and Joe sought to make the motivation for Juliana’s suicide clearer.  He draws attention to the fact that while the words of the aria in which Juan persuades her to take her life – “Run a hot bath./ Knock back some pills./ Down them with brandy./ Relax in the foam.  The comforting steam.  Let yourself drift.  Let yourself dream.” – are cruelly manipulative, the music is quiet and meditative.  The sustained strings and bass clarinet, the gentle harp ostinato, the vocal line which rises to a dreamy head voice as Juan sings of “flying” and “freedom”, and the sense of progressing towards a healing harmonic resolution as the music slips through a sequential fall, all hypnotise.  And, in this way Juan’s ‘seduction’ aria conveys a complex emotional dynamic.

Samuel Pantcheff (Juan) at the Parabola Arts Centre, Cheltenham, in July 2018

And Juan, too, has his backstory, a tale of criminality and violence which ends with a box arriving on his birthday containing his mother’s severed head.  “I wanted to make clear Juan’s determination to survive at all costs.  He’s driven by trauma.  The image is extreme, but I needed a graphic image to show why he had to get out of Bolivia and could never go back.  Juliana touches a nerve with her threat to have him deported; she really triggers something.”  Juan’s aria was the last part of the score that Joe composed.  “Originally it was to have been spoken, but then I realised I had to set it, and I summoned up the percussive punchy sound world of the streets of Bolivia – it’s such a complete contrast with Juliana’s breakdown.”

As Laurie explains, the reduction of the text opens up a space for the music: less enables more.  “Writing the libretto, I was able to write in a different way, more poetically.”  When Joe mentions that Britten’s Death in Venice was an influence, I think about the way that Britten’s opera dramatizes both the external and internal worlds, the music taking us into the protagonist’s mind.  The final words of the opera are Kerstin’s: lamenting that “God turns his face away”, she asks Juan in horror “What have you done?”  But, the music may suggest a different resolution.  When Juan brutally decapitates Juliana’s “little yellow bird-man”, the knife-sharpening grate of the trilling cello, chasing violins, and urgent double bass pizzicato, are suddenly quelled into a B major chord with a gentle added 7th, as Juan reassures, in a floating falsetto, “Free./ Your yellow bird-man/ Is now free.”

“Her motivation, her death-wish, is present from her first entrance,” says Laurie.  “Sexual arousal gives her some respite – but it cannot last, so she reverts back to her starting point.  And, this is reflected in the arc in music.”  And, so, when Juan coaxes, “If it hurts/ Take the hit./ Pain is the price of freedom”, Juliana’s reply, as they exchange hand-kisses, is one of acceptance, “Little man, Little yellow bird man./ Yes I found a man.”

Juliana, a chamber opera composed by Joseph Phibbs, with a libretto by Laurie Slade, is released by Resonus Classics on 7th January 2022. 

Claire Seymour

ABOVE: Cheryl Enever (Juliana) and Samuel Pantcheff (Juan) at the Parabola Arts Centre, Cheltenham, in July 2018