theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…
Harrison Birtwistle is not the easiest of composers for an audience to get along with. His music is complex. His choice of subject matter can be obscure and in his operas the theatrical approach to telling a story can be startling. So if you like a challenge and do not wish to sit passively in your orchestra stalls seat he may well be the composer for you.
I have to confess I struggle with his music. His sound world is such a wild and baffling place at times and very far removed from the everyday and the ordinary classical fare as peddled by Radio 3 and such. But to give the man his due, I struggle in a similar way with the music of Wagner, another composer who knew what he wanted to hear and who went right ahead and wrote it regardless.
Punch and Judy, Birtwistle’s first opera, was premiered in 1968 at the Aldeburgh Festival. I imagine it was quite a shock to the good folk of Suffolk when this violent and singular piece first poured forth from the stage. Forty years on, it has lost none of its ability to disturb and unsettle.
Musically, it is still a challenge. For the singers it is a demanding score which I am sure requires all their virtuosic ability plus a serious amount of stamina. Orchestrally, it is scored for chamber forces but packs a more symphonic-sounding punch. Dramatically, it has a murderous leading ‘man’, who first burns his baby, then murders his wife and ends up tangling with the Devil himself.
All of this is served up in a cyclical music drama which combines seaside puppet shows with a Greek theatre chorus and incorporates techniques culled from Bach’s Passions. The three Passion chorales and two Passion arias are points when the characters step out of the story and comment directly on what is occurring. These account for a lot of the emotional depth that Birtwistle has managed to insert into this grisly sideshow of a story.
This current staging, part of the first joint venture between the Young Vic and the ENO, is a cross-pollination which has spawned an excellent production. The ENO have brought some of their finest singers to the Young Vic stage.
As Punch, Andrew Shore has to be the first and only baritone around who could attempt to perform this role. He has proved himself on many occasions as a consummate actor who just happens to be an opera singer and once again he manages to illuminate his role perfectly. His ability to mix the sinister and comic is masterly.
Lucy Schaufer, Shore’s dramatic match, is as full-voiced a Judy as you could hope to get, while Ashley Holland keeps the entire piece properly grounded with his pivotal role of Choregos (Greek Chorus).
The production is directed by Daniel Kramer, who as a newcomer to the operatic stage seems to have taken to this particularly choppy water like the proverbial ‘duck’. His production is full of excellently conceived and placed images which help steer the production towards clarity and success.
Punch and Judy is a strange and furious piece which somehow manages to retain that child-like enjoyment of extreme violence enshrined in the original puppet show, while at the same time probing the adult consciences of its operatic audience.
Jack Hughes © 2008
Originally published on R&V 22-04-08
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