William Alwyn in 1979
An English composer with passion: William Alwyn in 1979 © Britten-Pears Foundation/Nigel Luckhurst

Why don't more film composers try their hand at opera? They have so many of the skills they need, but Hollywood icon Bernard Herrmann, who wrote the soundtracks for Hitchcock's Psycho and Vertigo, is a rare bird for having also composed an opera, Wuthering Heights.

William Alwyn is known today for his symphonies and chamber music, but he was also the composer of more than 70 film scores between 1941 and 1962. These included many films directed by Carol Reed and several Walt Disney blockbusters of the era.

Very few people seem to given much thought to performing his opera Miss Julie (1977). Or, at least, they did not until the BBC Symphony Orchestra presented it in concert at the Barbican last year, providing the source for this live recording.

It is sensationally gripping. Alwyn wrote the libretto himself, providing a stripped-down version of Strindberg's play that concentrates on the doomed central relationship. Puccini is generally cited as the main musical influence, but surely Herrmann is in there, too? There is a highly strung, obsessive streak to the music that could come straight out of Vertigo, and how heartening it is to find an English composer writing with such passion. Let the opera seize the imagination and it will not let go.

This is not the first recording of Miss Julie, but it is well sung by the two leads, Anna Patalong and Benedict Nelson, and conducted with urgency by Sakari Oramo. Opera companies in search of small-scale works for the post-coronavirus era need look no further.


Alwyn: Miss Julie’ is released by Chandos

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