Juliana: Joseph Phibbs’ new chamber opera

Juliana: Joseph Phibbs’ new chamber opera

In July 2018, Joseph Phibbs’ opera debut Juliana received its world premiere at the Cheltenham Music Festival. Working with librettist Laurie Slade, the composer has reworked August Stindberg’s classic chamber play Miss Julie into a modern scenario about the power of money, immigration politics, drugs and the blurring of sexual boundaries which enthralled the audience and press: “Juliana is that rare thing nowadays,” wrote The Guardian, “a genuinely well-made, effective new opera that achieves exactly what it sets out to do.” The co-production of Nova Music Opera, Presteigne Festival and Cheltenham Music Festival directed by Richard Williams and conducted by George Vass, returned to the stage in August and October 2018.

Picture of Juliana by Joseph Phibbs
Juliana, Cheltenham Music Festival 2018

Press quotes

»Slade’s economical text never draws attention to itself. It’s never unnecessarily difficult to sing, allowing Phibbs to match the words to meaningful lyrical lines rather than being forced to fall back on declamation. It’s a genuinely pleasant surprise to find a new opera in which virtually every word gains extra clarity and meaning through the way in which it has been set. The pace of the music varies convincingly – languorous to start, before quickening and becoming more motoric when Juan appears, throwing in something vaguely Latin American (part flamenco, part tango) when the couple dance, and erupting into a wild, aggressive jig when they make love – with each character given their own instrumental sound world within the eight-piece ensemble. Juliana is that rare thing nowadays, a genuinely well-made, effective new opera that achieves exactly what it sets out to do.«
The Guardian, 18.07.2018

»Laurie Slade’s libretto is lean and poetic, matched by Joseph Phibbs’s intelligent and ear-catching score. At its best, this opera contains music of real power: the ecstatic love duet, for instance, and Juliana’s haunting monologue. There are winning touches in the orchestration too, from the fluttering flute to suggest a canary, to the percussive glint of the offstage racing speedboats.«
The Times, 18.07.2018

Picture of Juliana by Joseph Phibbs
Juliana, Cheltenham Music Festival 2018

About the work

In a contemporary setting, the power of aristocracy is replaced by that of plutocracy. Strindberg’s Count, an unseen but malevolent presence, becomes the Boss, a multi-millionaire businessman. Julie becomes Juliana, a spoilt little rich girl in thrall to her father. Jean becomes Juan, an immigrant servant, his status insecure – a member of today’s under-class. Juliana and Juan live on the edge emotionally. Kerstin, the housekeeper, is caught in a triangular conflict with them both – but she’s also a chorus figure, bearing witness to events onstage and off from the more compassionate perspective found in Strindberg’s later work.
The role of Juliana is assigned to a soprano, with Kerstin a mezzo-soprano and Juan a baritone. While the traditional notion of aria and recitative is not used explicitly, much of the work can be divided into expansive, lyrical meditations on a given situation, while more fleeting, discursive music serves to propel the narrative forward. Recurring instrumental themes often highlight the dramatic context at various points (for example, the natural world, described by Kerstin in the opening, finds expression through a soft, multi-layered string texture; and the Boss’s business affairs, as described by Juan in Scene 2, are underpinned with punchy, motoric figuration in the clarinet and percussion) and these themes attach themselves – often in different guises – to each of the three characters.
The work is through-composed and runs without an interval, its thirteen scenes divided roughly at mid-point by a short instrumental interlude. It is scored for an ensemble of flute (and piccolo), clarinet (and bass clarinet), two violins, cello, double bass, harp and percussion, a number of whose players are assigned to ‘shadow’ the three roles at various key points: the vibraphone and flute/piccolo in the case of Juliana (as well as her pet canary), the clarinet and percussion with Juan and strings with Kerstin.

—Joseph Phibbs and Laurie Slade, 2018 (Excerpt from the world premiere's programm note. Published with the kind permission of the Cheltenham Music Festivals)

Juliana (2017)

A chamber opera
S.Ms.Bar –
Duration: 75’

Photos: www.stillmovingmedia courtesy Cheltenham Music Festival