Don't miss: Julie Lucia Cervoni (Julie) and Clarence Frazer (Jean). Photo: Cylla Von Tiedemann

Don't miss: Julie

Jenna Simeonov

Tomorrow night is the North American premiere of Julie, Philippe Boesmans’ 2005 opera, presented by Soundstreams and Canadian Stage. The piece is based on the Strindberg 1888 play, Miss Julie, which has one of those fantastic premiere stories of scandal followed by success. In the 19th century, a story about a woman who tried to “train” her fiancé with a whip is pretty darn honest. “I begged them to keep that scene in [the opera]!” jokes mezzo-soprano Lucia Cervoni, who sings the title role in Julie, starting November 17th.

Matthew Jocelyn directs this production of Julie, a one-act chamber opera that tells a slightly condensed version of Strindberg’s story, with a libretto by Luc Bondy and Marie-Louise Bischofberger. The opera begins shortly after Julie’s fiancé has left her, and she soon sets her eyes on Jean, her father’s valet. Despite his being engaged to Christine, Julie’s cook, Julie tries to seduce Jean, and they plan to run away together and open up a hotel. Plans, as they often do in theatre, fall through. “[Julie]’s a very emotional woman,” says Cervoni, “and her emotions change very quickly. You can hear that in the music, too.”

The three-singer cast also includes baritone Clarence Frazer as Jean, and soprano Sharleen Joynt as his fiancée, and Julie’s cook, Christine. It’s a story that’s more than a love-triangle, and what I love is the vague greyness of Julie’s status; she’s not quite a femme fatale, and despite being the daughter of a Count, she’s not quite a spoiled brat either. So, what’s the deal with Julie, the dominant, high-strung rich lady at the centre of this story? Cervoni puts it simply: “She wants love and freedom.” Those are big wants, and privileged people throughout history have discovered that they’re not (always) things that can be bought.

“Julie doesn’t know this, but Jean has known her since she was little,” adds Frazer. “He stays with Julie, partly because he thinks he’s going to get that money, to start this hotel together.” While Jean looks to Julie as a stepping stone towards a better life, Julie finds her own reciprocity. “[Julie] uses him for sex,” simplifies Frazer. But what about Jean’s fiancée? “She’s a devout Christian,” says Joynt. “She’s Julie’s cook, so there’s definitely a class difference.” I expected a story about a doormat-like woman who loses her man to crazy, but Joynt assured me Christine has a spine. “She makes decisions.”

I was even able to hear a bit of the music, as I sat in on the tail-end of their sitzprobe, led by maestro Leslie Dala. I was struck by the enormous palate of colour and sound effect in Boesmans’ score, and by what sounded like specific, but complicated, music. Cervoni agrees, admitting “it was a long process learning it; for me, it always is with modern music, I find. But there was a moment where it just clicked.” Frazer and Joynt had similar experiences, finding great rewards in the hard work that the music demands. “It’s written well for the voice,” says Frazer. “Once you get past a certain point, you hear how the music is saying what the character is thinking.” Joynt tentatively agrees, laughing that despite some fair use of her fiery coloratura technique, “I get a few beautiful lines, too.”

Julie opens November 17th, and plays for eight shows until November 29th. For details and ticket information, follow the box office links below.

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