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Interview, Anna Patalong and Benedict Nelson on Miss Julie

Anna Patalong and Benedict NelsonOne of the stand-out recordings of this summer for me has been Sakari Oramo's brilliantly claustrophobic account of William Alwyn's late opera Miss Julie on Chandos, starring Anna Patalong as Strindberg's tragic heroine and her real-life husband Benedict Nelson (stepping in for another singer at nail-bitingly short notice) as the charismatic, scheming valet who orchestrates her downfall.

Over FaceTime drinks last month, we discussed the pleasures and challenges of bringing Jean and Julie's volatile relationship to life as an 'off-screen' couple, why they're gunning for a fully-staged production of the piece, and Ben's top tips for learning a role from scratch within a week...

This opera has only been staged once in the UK since its premiere in 1977: do either of you have any theories as to why it hasn’t gained more of a foothold?

BN: I’m just amazed it’s been left to rot! There’s a kind of cultural Darwinism at work when it comes to attitudes towards operas: the general perception is that if they’ve been left on the shelf for a while then there’s probably a good reason, and broadly speaking that’s often true, but it’s definitely not true in this case. I’d happily sacrifice an extra Butterfly or Bohème every year just to get more of this stuff on stage - and it’d be cheaper, too, because it’s such a small cast! Obviously 2020 has got in the way of it all, but the opera producers who were at the concert made lots of positive noises, and I hope someone eventually puts it on and calls us up! It just deserves to be out there: it’s glorious music.

AP: And because it has this filmic quality to it, which is what Alwyn was famous for, it’s really quite accessible: I know a lot of people who aren’t necessarily into classical music and opera often get into it from that side of things. It’s a little like Korngold in that respect…

BN: Which makes sense, because of the film music connection. There are bits of Strauss and Puccini in there as well (Alwyn literally quotes a motif from Tosca at one point!), but to my ear it’s not pastiche – it’s intellectually valid music, it’s very well set, and the adaption of Strindberg in the libretto is also really wonderful. I didn’t have enough time in the run-up to learn as much about Alwyn as I would’ve liked but in the months afterwards I did a bit of digging; I was talking to Roderick Williams about it a while ago, and he’s wanted to do it for years! It must’ve been a curious time to be an opera composer: who else other than Britten was really having any success? Of course Alwyn wasn’t primarily an opera composer, and Miss Julie came right at the end of his life, so it’s an interesting piece in the context of his other work.

In terms of the vocal writing, do you feel much affinity with any composers in your more standard repertoire?

AP: People mention Puccini a lot when they talk about this piece, but I really don’t get that in terms of how it feels to sing. To me, it feels closer to something like Janáček, in terms of the rise and fall of the hysteria and the intense focus on the language and dialogue. There are four people in the opera, but it’s essentially a two-hander: it’s a conversation between Jean and Julie.

BN: The orchestral textures sometimes sound quite Puccini-ish, but the sheer emotional kineticism of the whole thing is exhausting, and for me that’s what sets it away from Puccini a lot: the emotions flash by so quickly, whereas with Puccini you get ten minutes at a time of a singular thing.

AP: It’s draining, but in the best possible way.

And presumably even more exhausting when you’re stepping in at a few days’ notice…how do you go about preparing something on this scale from scratch within such a tight time-frame?

BN: It’s something that just started happening for me a lot last year, actually. I did a couple of things for the BBC, including a Boulanger piece earlier in the year where they asked me to jump in at about three days’ notice, and at exactly the same time Glyndebourne needed someone to come and rehearse Barbiere because they weren’t going to have their Figaro there for a month – that was something I hadn’t done in Italian, and hadn’t done at all for about ten years. I tend to get through on adrenaline, really, but thankfully I’ve always been quite quick at picking stuff up! When I got the call about Miss Julie I was in Vienna doing yet another jump-in, Demetrius in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and I flew back to London late one evening. The BBC were wonderful: they put me up in a hotel in Paddington so I could just concentrate on learning the score, and also set me up with the marvellous [voice coach] Tony Legge. Anna and I didn’t actually speak all that week, but that was probably more for her benefit than mine – I’d have been a nightmare to be around! I got up at 6AM and had a coaching with Tony at 7.30 each day, and the rest of it was just skin-of-the-teeth!

The first thing I do is to identify the phrases that really need to be sung in, from a technical point of view. I know it says I’m a bass-baritone on the cover of the recording, but Jean sits quite high: there are a lot of top As, as I discovered when I messaged Anna on the way home from Vienna saying ‘Just WhatsApp me the high bits!’… Then I’ll move on to the passages that are rhythmically and musically tricky - though when you’re doing something at such short notice you can also pick out the bits where you can kind of get away with, let’s say, ‘Being Dramatic’! The scene where Jean’s yelling at Ulrik to get out is pretty much spot-on in the recording, which happened a week later, but in the concert it just turned into a screaming bunch of histrionics. Ah, the art of the blag!

AP: I think we started rehearsals on the Saturday, Ben joined us on the Tuesday, and the performance was on the Thursday. I honestly don’t know how he picked it up at such short notice: the man’s a genius! It took me (and everyone else in the cast) a long time to learn, because it’s tricky music. Obviously putting a full staging together in that time-frame was impossible, but because we know each other so well it was fairly easy to semi-stage it.

Had you done much opera together before Miss Julie?

BN: No! We did Sid and Emmy in Albert Herring for British Youth Opera about ten years ago, and then nothing, barring the odd concert for friends’ festivals and the like. Finally getting to be on stage together in two meaty roles like this was a dream come true, in spite of everything being so last-minute: it really was one of the happiest times of my life.

AP: It was a complete joy. With everything that’s going on at the moment, who knows what the future holds: as I said in a rather soppy Facebook status the other week, I really hope that this won’t be the last hurrah for either of us, but if it is then it’s been so nice to do this together. We videoed some of the recording-sessions and it’s quite funny to see how we’re egging each other on!

As an evidently extremely happy couple, was it difficult to portray such a dysfunctional relationship on stage?

BN: I was very conscious - and I remember saying this at the time - that actually creating the sexual tension that Jean and Julie have was the really hard bit! You need that frisson, that electricity in the air between two people…Anna and I have been together for a long time, and it’s not like we don’t have that any more (!), but we also have an immense amount of physical comfort in each other’s company, so that kind of dynamic was genuinely quite difficult to find. When reviewers said ‘Obviously they have amazing physical chemistry – they’re married in real life!’, I was actually quite annoyed by that, because it took a lot of work to make it happen.

AP: It’s a very violent relationship as well, even if there’s not that much physicality - but I felt so much more comfortable doing that because we know each other’s boundaries and I always know where Ben’s going to go with it. For me the violent bits were actually easier than kissing on stage at the Barbican in front of hundreds of people!

Did you know Strindberg's play before you started working towards the recording?

AP: I had read it before this project came up, but when I started to explore its background in more detail as I prepared the role I realised that my first reading of it had been completely at odds with Strindberg’s own viewpoint! I don’t think it’s any secret that I’m a fervent feminist, and so I initially read it as a feminist play…but then I read that Strindberg (who wasn’t the most progressive, shall we say, in his attitudes towards women) had actually intended it as an anti-feminist cautionary tale! With all of that in mind, I had to think quite hard about how I was actually going to play the character. I think Alwyn does a lot, though, to generate sympathy for Miss Julie: no-one’s going to come away from the opera thinking ‘Oh well, she deserved what she got!’.

BN: So much of that kind of thing is in the eye of the audience: Don Giovanni is a great example of an opera that is steeped in the values of a time which was radically different from our own, and actually I’d say that most of Da Ponte’s work was more effective in the context of his own world views. Today we receive and interpret these operas entirely differently, but we still completely accept the characters because they’re such true representations of people. Things like The Taming of the Shrew, for example, are still perfectly produceable now as depictions of realistic people with a defined moral framework - we’re just seeing the characters in a slightly different way.

AP: I do actually think the Alwyn opera has aged well in that respect: I don’t know if there was a different perception of that aspect of things when it was first produced, because most of the material on reception is more focused on how people didn’t really embrace it because the score was too lush and Romantic, but I’d hope that audiences would still have received it well in terms of the way Alwyn portrayed the play.

In terms of future plans, you mentioned Janáček earlier, Anna – are his heroines something that appeals to you after singing Julie?

AP: Yes, very much so! I’d never really considered it before, but Janáček was born just a few miles from my ancestors, and I think I’ve always had an affinity with that kind of Slavic repertoire even though I’d never really fallen into that niche in terms of what I’ve done on stage. I’ve always stuck quite firmly in the Italian repertoire, but when an agent suggested I start exploring some Janáček I went away and thought ‘Well, maybe…’ and now I love it! So the Slavic stuff is opening up a bit more, and I’m thinking of maybe heading towards Strauss some day…Arabella’s been mentioned by a few people, for both of us! I suppose you have to look at the positives in the whole COVID crisis, and this hiatus does give you a kind of break-point where you can say: ‘Well that was me just out of college, but I’ve spent this period of time away from performing and this is who I am now!’.

BN: Obviously I’m biased, but she recorded some Janáček last year for audition-reels and it is mint!

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