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Recording of the Week, William Alwyn's Miss Julie from Sakari Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra

Given that Midsummer Eve (which plays such a central role in the piece) fell on 24th June, it would have been a neat touch for this marvellous new recording of William Alwyn’s Miss Julie to have dropped a week earlier – but the principle of ‘Better late than never’ applies on several more fundamental levels here. Though it was recorded with most of the original cast (Jill Gomez, Benjamin Luxon and Della Jones) not long after its premiere in the late 1970s, Alwyn’s final opera has never found the foothold in the repertoire which it deserves, and the concert-performance which took place in London around the time of this recording last October was the piece’s first outing in the UK in over two decades.

Sakari OramoOn the evidence here its neglect is a mystery: holding forth on social media in-between recording-sessions, Sakari Oramo cited a lack of adventurousness on the part of both conductors and arts administrators, and his own advocacy of the work should be applauded from the roof-tops. Alwyn’s brilliant realisation of Strindberg’s claustrophobic, over-heated drama about a lady of the manor’s disastrous Midsummer fling with her father’s valet is immediately engaging and often strikingly original, though its harmonic and melodic language has its feet planted firmly in the past: the work was premiered in 1977, the same year as Tippett’s The Ice Break, but listen ‘blind’ and you’d place it a good few decades earlier.

Subtle and not-so-subtle references to early twentieth-century masterpieces abound: in the opening scene, as the Machiavellian valet Jean carps about his mistress’s inappropriate behaviour at the Midsummer dance taking place off-stage, the atmosphere of revelry about to spiral out of control is conjured by an obvious homage to Ravel’s La valse, and after the upstairs/downstairs sexual tension comes to a head at the end of Act One the sense of creeping unease and foreboding comes with a side-order of Stravinsky’s Firebird. That same motif weaves its way through the bleak final scene as Jean dispassionately offers his discarded lover her only escape-route in the form of the means to take her own life (a razor in Strindberg’s original, but apparently the potion brewed to control the libidinous impulses of Miss Julie’s dog in this particular staging – the symbolism speaks for itself).

Anna PatalongAnother aspect of the project which seems long overdue is the recording debut of the magnetic British soprano Anna Patalong, who sings the title-role with a compelling combination of hauteur, wild sensuality and nervy fragility which put me in mind of Gillian Anderson’s Blanche in the National Theatre’s recently-streamed performance of A Streetcar Named Desire. (Indeed the hothouse atmosphere and the central relationship between a damaged, genteel fantasist and a charismatic but callous self-made man is common to both works, and it would be wonderful to hear the two principal singers here in André Previn’s opera on Streetcar). Hers is a big, glossy, full lyric soprano with plenty of fire on the many exposed top notes which Alwyn demands of his heroine, and she floats Julie’s delicate but sexually-charged paean to Midsummer Eve in Act One quite exquisitely.

Patalong’s real-life husband, the baritone Benedict Nelson, is every bit as riveting in the role of Jean – astonishingly, he learned the part at 48 hours’ notice, but he conveys the character’s manipulative charm, erotic charge, and almost psychopathic coldness with such force and assurance that it sounds as if it had been in his repertoire for years. As his jilted below-stairs paramour Kristin, the young dramatic mezzo Rosie Aldridge is a worthy adversary to Patalong’s Julie, all sassy wise-cracks in Act One and full of god-fearing self-righteousness later on when the chips are down. And diction from all three is immaculate: you’ll have no need of the libretto, though props to Chandos for supplying one.

Opera companies have a lot on their plates at the moment for obvious reasons, but let’s hope that one or two take notice of this fine recording: once summer festivals are back on their feet again this piece is an absolute shoo-in for places like Glyndebourne and Garsington, and I for one would hot-foot it to the box-office queue.

Anna Patalong (Miss Julie), Benedict Nelson (Jean), Rosie Aldridge (Kristin), Samuel Sakker (Ulrik)

BBC Symphony Orchestra, Sakari Oramo

Available Formats: 2 SACDs, MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC