The new opera from Philippe Bosemans, “Julie,” is a perfect work for people who think they don’t like opera or atonal music. Shorter than a movie and more intense and absorbing than most Hollywood summer fare, it’s a great, grown-up alternative to Brad and Angelina.
Luc Bondy and Marie-Louise Bischofberger have created a powerful, theatrically astute libretto distilled from “Miss Julie,” August Strindberg’s groundbreaking 1888 psychological study of the dangerous games played by a headstrong, unstable woman and her servant.
Bondy’s hyper-realistic production sticks closely to Strindberg’s play, set on a Scandinavian midsummer night. Julie is first seen popping in and out of the manor house kitchen, the domain of butler Jean and housemaid Kristin, who are engaged.
Getting drunker by the minute, Julie brazenly comes on to Jean under Kristin’s nose. Revealing her earthy side, she snorts when she laughs and splashes cold water on her armpits, belying the formality of her scarlet evening gown.
Julie orders Jean to kiss her feet, and she rubs his ass while he complies, wipes his face with her skirts and places his hand up her dress. The verbal pugilism builds as the two jockey for power, and clothes soon are flying.
Jean dreams of fleeing to Switzerland, where he and Julie can open a hotel. When Julie, swathed in a post-coital sheet, condescendingly asks what he will do for capital, he demands she steal money from her father. When Jean declares, “Once a whore, always a whore,” Julie goes to slap him but hugs him instead.
In a sadistic statement of supremacy, Jean beheads Julie’s canary and she sings, “Kill me, too,” then turns to Kristin and begs, “Save me!” But salvation is not forthcoming: Jean hands Julie her father’s razor and leaves her to find the only way out.
Kristin’s epiphany is stunningly illustrated: Entering the kitchen with a huge bouquet, Kristin finds Jean on the floor, gathering the flowers Julie has just thrown at him. As the reality of infidelity hits her, Kristin drops her blossoms just as Jean picks his up.
Beginning (and ending) with a the throb of a heartbeat, Bosemans’ score is less descriptive of the action than it is a mirror of the characters’ states of mind. Reeds and strings dance over evocative, magical orchestrations punctuated by percussion effects like the slap of a bongo. There are brief flirts with tonality — snatches of tunes, and even a brief duet in parallel thirds — but while Bosemans employs 12-tone technique throughout, this is not music to be afraid of. One moment when Bosemans does get literal is the stormy interlude during the sex scene: Little is left to the imagination.
Richard Peduzzi’s strangely gorgeous, clinical white kitchen provides a clear battleground for the trio. Odd bits of primary color — a blue chair, a red cupboard — vaguely suggest contemporary design in a classic setting. Rudy Sabounghi dresses the servants in plain period uniforms, but Julie’s easy-to-shed evening dress is a knockout in any century.
As Kristin, pert, pretty Hendrickje Van Kerckhove makes a strong statement in a small role, sailing over fiendishly difficult coloratura in defiance of her humiliation.
Davide Damiani sings with a warm, sensuous baritone, but his Jean is a hairy-chested brute: Every time you think he might actually be genuinely tender, you realize it’s just an act.
Tall, seductive, rich-voiced Malena Ernman blazes in the marathon title role, singing and acting with an abandon not usually associated with opera, slamming her unraveling emotions from one extreme to the other. White-hot in the sex scenes, pathetic in her pleas for salvation, she is a glorious monster.