Joseph Phibbs’s Juliana – Cheryl Enever & Samuel Pantcheff; directed by Richard Williams; conducted by George Vass

Joseph Phibbs
Juliana – Chamber Opera in one Act to a libretto by Laurie Slade based on Strindberg’s play Miss Julie [London premiere; sung in English, with English surtitles]

Juliana – Cheryl Enever
Kerstin – Rebecca Afonwy-Jones
Juan – Samuel Pantcheff

Nova Music Opera Ensemble
George Vass

Richard Williams – Director
Translight – Lighting

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 21 October, 2018
Venue: St John's, Smith Square, London

Joseph Phibbs’s Juliana – Cheryl Enever & Samuel PantcheffDirected by Richard WilliamsConducted by George VassPhotograph: Nova MusicEver since Strindberg’s play Miss Julie was first staged, in Copenhagen in 1889, its shocker status has seeped into the theatrical subconscious, as much for its class and political concerns as for its erotic thrust. The title role is seriously damaged goods, a poor little aristocratic rich girl, daughter of a Swedish count, who gets hooked up with her father’s handsome valet. Their sexual encounter over midsummer’s night on a remote country estate quickly escalates into a full-on and fatal power struggle. A Little Night Music it is not, and Strindberg’s ripe slice of proto-Scandi-noir seems never out of a production somewhere. It has also been much adapted for other media, including opera – there are versions by Ned Rorem and William Alwyn, and others.

Juliana, by Joseph Phibbs and Laurie Slade, was first seen, aptly, for a one-night-stand at this year’s Cheltenham Festival, and this was its London one-night-stand. It updates the story so that the unseen Count is now the equally menacing and unseen Boss. Otherwise, the opera, like the play, is a three-hander, and at eighty minutes about the same duration. The role of Kerstin, the Boss’s housekeeper, is slightly simplified to add a moral leavening to the lovers’ total self-absorption. The surtitles failed about halfway through, and, as words weren’t clear, some symbolic business about the drowning of two youngsters larking about in a speedboat wasn’t as clear or, indeed, as laboured as it might have been. There is more symbolism, here carried over from the play, about a caged canary that ends up as collateral damage, which should be haunting but isn’t – and it could do with some editing; or even drop the dead bird. Phibbs’s score, though, has the ambition, atmosphere and dramatic insight to overcome such minor misgivings, and it is easy to imagine Juliana being done on a much larger scale, all down to the breadth of singing and of the playing from the eight-strong ensemble. Phibbs has great skill in setting up character and situation in music that then blooms with dramatic fluency. Richard Williams’s simple production set in the mansion’s kitchen is more than adequate.

Cheryl Enever and Samuel Pantcheff piled on the agony as the coked-up, traumatised and abused Juliana and Juan, circling each other with explicitly acted lust and power-games. Enever brilliantly conveyed Juliana’s fragile, aloof mystique that, in the end, cracks so easily, and her intense singing was the ideal vehicle for Phibbs’s unfailingly expressive music. Pantcheff, perhaps a bit of a stretch as an immigrant on the run from Bolivia, nevertheless had a vital predatory sexuality, and was in luxurious voice as he eventually destroys Juliana. Rebecca Afonwy-Jones clearly portrayed Kerstin’s growing dismay as the lethal liaison unfolds. George Vass, with his customary thoroughness, kept things close and oppressive, and the result was incredibly vivid.

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