Juliana Nova Music Opera, Cheltenham by Christopher Morley
Spoiler alert for future audiences of this opera, one which we at this premiere didn't have, and at whose ending we were left stunned and uneasy.
Commissioned by the Nova Music Trust and the Cheltenham and Presteigne Festivals, Joseph Phibbs' Juliana is a modern take on Strindberg's Miss Julie, with a libretto by Laurie Slade, who has a history of dramatic reworkings in his CV.
This is a three-hander, with poor little rich girl (as we shockingly discover) Juliana manipulated by Juan, the bitter, self-justifying manservant, while housekeeper Kerstin looks on not altogether helplessly. Cheryl Enever, Samuel Pantcheff and Rebecca Afonwy-Jones perform heroically, and George Vass conducts a wonderfully agile and eloquent New Music Opera Ensemble.
The action takes place on Midsummer Night, but its results are so far away from the sunny optimism of Midsummer operas by Wagner, Tippett and Britten. Instead we have the grime of drug-taking and incest, recalling masterpieces by Mark-Anthony Turnage (Blood on the Floor, Greek).
Phibbs' score is clear and effective, each scene clearly characterised, whether busy in the style of neo-classical Stravinsky, jazzy, or seductively Latin-American. And he has a sure ear for colour and texture, though some of his pitchings of crucial words go amiss (you can never articulate "bird" clearly from the top of a vocal skyscraper).
But he falters as this one-act opera nears its end, its momentum and proportions collapsing under the weight of Slade's lurid and ill-disciplined skew of psychoanalysis. We hear of a head delivered in a box as a warning, we have the cruel killing of Juliana's pet canary, and we endure the graphic description, undergarment ripped off after undergarment, of Juliana's daily rape by her father.
Instead of demanding a rewrite, Phibbs plodded on with this, and seemed not to know when to stop. Eventually everything did.
*Repeated in St Andrew's Church, Presteigne August 23 (8.30pm).