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theatre review

A scene from JulieCylla von Tiedemann

August Strindberg's Miss Julie is one of the seminal plays of the modern theatre, a cauldron of late-19th-century angst where the battle of the sexes intersects with the struggle of class warfare, and doom and dismay is the psychological aftermath. It is a harrowing journey into corruption, madness and death.

Unfortunately, very little of that sense of danger and impending disaster emerged from the Canadian Stage production of Julie, a chamber opera crafted from the Strindberg play by librettists Luc Bondy and Marie-Louise Bischofberger, with a score by celebrated Belgian composer Philippe Boesmans. He is almost 80, but Julie is Boesmans's debut production in North America, although he is widely performed in Europe. Julie was originally written in 2005.

And the limitations of CanStage's production of Julie can't be laid at the composer's doorstep. Boesmans's score for Julie is masterful and clever, using the timbre of his 19 instruments to sometimes predict, sometimes comment on, and sometimes supplement the action on stage. From the muffled drum that begins and ends the 75-minute opera, Boesmans uses tiny points of musical light to illuminate the opera's story, and help us to understand its psychology. It's the unravelling of personality that lies at the opera's heart, as the aristocratic Julie seduces, and then sleeps with, her father's manservant, Jean, destroying her and shaking him. Boesmans's orchestration helped tell that story with subtlety, even if his vocal lines were a little less appealing, without the same sense of purpose and coloration that his orchestra demonstrated. Leslie Dala led the 19 musicians with a deft hand.

The problems with Julie were not in the pit. They were on stage. And, interestingly, for an opera presented by a stage company, they were mainly theatrical. Julie, as well as its original, Miss Julie, is a story of character. There are only three people on stage, and action is sublimated to character development from beginning to end. However, none of the three principals seemed to inhabit their characters in any meaningful way, let alone develop them throughout the evening. All three either maintained basically the same attitude toward each other and the audience as the harrowing plot unfolded, or alternated between two or three emotional states. We need to see Julie, and Jean, even Christine (Jean's fiancée, who is also the household cook), change and wilt and be transformed in an inexorable continuum. Not enough of that was offered on Tuesday night.

Vocally, all three performers sang well. Lucia Cervoni, a Canadian soprano singing for the first time in Canada, has a fine, rich voice to bring to Julie's character. Clarence Frazer was equally robust as Jean, and Sharleen Joynt's coloratura was well-controlled as Christine. But even vocally, the singers tended to develop one sound and then stick to it, projecting the same vocal persona all night. Not one of these characters should sound the same throughout the development of the drama – their voices as well as their characters must bend and twist and change with the course of the plot. We needed more of that in this Julie.

Matthew Jocelyn's direction sometimes muddied the dramatic waters as well. Having the drama of Julie unpeel like a slow Freudian striptease is no easy task to pull off, especially with a musical score to manage as well. But things got confusing on stage from time to time. Sometimes the action was intensely dramatic; sometimes comic, whether intended or not; sometimes controlled by a clear plan; sometimes unexpected and distracting.

If there's a question of whether Canadian Stage should continue to present operas, there shouldn't be. If the occasion arises, why not? It's an admirable and manageable gamble. But we're a tough crowd, we Toronto opera-goers. We see a lot of first-rate work in this town, in various places. That has become the standard by which we judge it all. Julie, despite some strengths, didn't fully live up to it.

Julie continues until Nov. 29 (

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