The month of April is saturated with contemporary opera stagings in London. While the Royal Opera prepares for the world premiere of Sir Harrison Birtwistle's The Minotaur, English National Opera has a less conventional offering in the form of a two-work mini-season at the Young Vic, where the freer performance space will allow for a quite different kind of operatic experience. The pieces on offer are Olga Neuwirth's Lost Highway, which enjoyed its UK premiere a few days ago (4 April), and Birtwistle's Punch and Judy, which opens 19 April.
The latter seems particularly attractive, with a new production by director Daniel Kramer (of Hair, Angels in America and Bent fame) and a cast including Graeme Broadbent as the Doctor, Graham Clark as the Lawyer, Ashley Holland as Choregos, Gillian Keith as Pretty Polly, Lucy Schaufer as Judy and Andrew Shore as Punch, under the baton of Edward Gardner. During an intense lunch break, I caught up with Shore to find out how rehearsals are progressing – and why Punch and Judy retains its spellbinding quality in the fortieth year since its premiere.
'It's all going really well,' he tells me. 'I got back from Chicago at the beginning of last week – I was there for ten and a half weeks to play Falstaff and Dr Bartolo in Il barbiere di Siviglia. Rehearsals for Punch and Judy were underway two weeks before I returned, which meant that although the production is pretty much blocked, and everyone else has gone through the whole thing, I'm only halfway through.'
But, he says, that situation is interesting rather than a problem. 'The opera doesn't have its own natural narrative: the through line of the story has to be evolved by the director. The text consists of word games and rituals between the characters. Daniel Kramer has been very inventive in working out how to stage it, though I'm not at the end of the production yet so it's still a voyage of discovery for me.'
Shore emphasises the particular nature of the opera. 'All sorts of strange word games happen – ritualistic puns and mad games between the Doctor and the Lawyer.' He also has plenty to say about the score. 'The music still sounds very modern, striking and violent. But it also has a tremendous lyricism. The ritualistic aspect will help the audience – sometimes you hear the same piece of music repeated three or four times, either in sequence or separately. Actions are repeated. And they'll appreciate the fact that the opera brings all the conventional elements of the children's Punch and Judy into the piece: Punch kills his baby, then his wife, then the Doctor and the Lawyer. The bare elements are there. There's lots of slapstick, but the piece is heightened so that the characters aren't all clown-like figures: they have a human point of view as well. For me, it's a balancing act. I have to be Mr Punch the clown, but sometimes the actor underneath begins to speak in his own voice. So it has various layers to it.'
The singer enthuses, too, about the complexity and ambiguity of the piece. 'It's very fast-moving, there's lots of activity, lots of movement, exaggerated movement, seriousness and lyricism. The subtitle 'tragical comedy or comical tragedy' is appropriate: you're never entirely sure which it is, because of the approach of the composer and librettist.'
Will Birtwistle's music still have the power to shock? 'We're used to hearing all kinds of music nowadays, so perhaps it won't be a huge shock. The violence of the music may shock but it's doing nothing more than representing Punch and Judy – it exaggerates their situations and uses instruments at their extremes. Punch is a figure of emotional extremes and the music embodies that. It will be a visceral musical experience. If people have tried listening to it on CD, I can imagine they might not be able to appreciate it fully. But seeing it will help: the audience just needs to let itself go with the experience.'
Shore also raves about ENO's decision to stage the piece at the Young Vic rather than the Coliseum – a move considered controversial by some because the theatre has briefly become a receiving house for foreign ballet companies in the interim. 'Because of its circus setting, it's a piece that's done in the round more often than not. The Young Vic is an excellent place to perform Punch and Judy and I think the intimacy and shape of the venue will really help.'
He expands on how the space will be used. 'There are some representational sets at one end. I went to see Jonathan Dove's Tobias and the Angel at the Young Vic, and it's rather like that with a bit of construction down the end and a circus ring with the audience on three sides. The designer and director have taken in the traditional Punch and Judy look and colours, with that element of clowning inherent in the original. It's played as a colourful entertainment.' Shore also praises the work of Edward Gardner, Music Director of English National Opera, on this production. 'He has a great sense of what the director is trying to do, so he's very much part of the team.'
Straight after Punch and Judy, Andrew Shore will return to ENO for Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier. David McVicar's production, which was extremely well received when it was first shown at Scottish Opera, will come to London for the first time, and Shore will play Faninal alongside Janice Watson's Marschallin, John Tomlinson's Baron Ochs, Sarah Connolly's Octavian and Sarah Tynan's Sophie. 'I'm very much looking forward to it. I've heard the most wonderful things about David McVicar's production,' he tells me. When I ask him whether it bothers him to go from playing the title character in one production to a secondary character in another, he assures me that 'Faninal's OK – he's one of those characters who demands a lot of work to learn and is very busy when you're on, yet it's hard to have the impact. He serves the plot in a very important way but he isn't a standout character. Another example of that kind of character is Dr Kolonaty, the lawyer in The Makropulos Case. You work like billy-o all evening, and you have all these legal words and phrases to learn because of the plot. Yet he doesn't have the impact on the audience.
'But let's face it: Faninal is the only role I could do in that piece – Baron Ochs is too low for me. I love the piece and the music, and it's the only way I can be in it!
'I've loved doing the big parts like Falstaff, Pasquale and Dulcamara when they've come up – and the serious ones too, like King Priam, a wonderful tragic role, and one of the political prisoners in From the House of the Dead. It was a Wozzeck-like role. I also love Wozzeck, which I've done at Opera North and elsewhere but never at ENO. I enjoy the challenge of taking on very different kinds of roles.'
Shore also returns to ENO later in the year in the role of Dr Bartolo in The Barber of Seville. 'I've just done it in Chicago in Italian, and ENO are bringing it back in the autumn. I love doing it in English for an English audience. When you're playing comedy, it's great to have the immediate reaction. Of course, I took issue with ENO for introducing surtitles – I didn't want them to fall into the trap of using them for English opera. Frankly, I think it's crazy: you get fits of laughter the minute the audience reads the words, then the effect of the music is dissipated. The laughter interrupts the vocal line, which is what conveys the real comedy that composers like Rossini and Donizetti have written into it. I have mellowed a little in my views – I'm prepared to accept that there are times when it can help to have the text, such as in Wagner – but I think they should take each opera on its own terms. It's really the bel canto comedies where it annoys me – especially in recitative, which conveys the story. And I can't believe they used them for The Mikado.'
He also speaks warmly of his other forthcoming engagements. 'I'm back in Bayreuth in the summer doing Alberich in the ongoing Ring, and I may be back in the following summer or two, I'm not sure. I always enjoy working there – of course, it all boils down to who you're working with but it's a wonderful place to sing. The orchestra is miraculous, absolutely superb. The conductor of the current Ring, Christian Thielemann, is also superb – he really knows the music inside out.
'ENO's production of Death in Venice – the Deborah Warner one – is going to Brussels around the end of the year, and I'm happy to be playing the baritone roles in that. I saw the first few performances of that in the 1970s, and years ago I covered it for Glyndebourne, but this will be the first time I get to sing it onstage. I also have my La Scala debut coming up, as Quince in A Midsummer Night's Dream. That's a jolly show because you're part of an ensemble. And Covent Garden are reviving their Double Bill, so I'll be doing L'heure espagnole again.'
For the moment, though, the main focus is on Punch and Judy. 'It's such an absorbing piece to perform – I think everyone's going to love it.'
Andrew Shore sings Punch in Punch and Judy at the Young Vic with English National Opera from 19 April. He returns as Faninal in Der Rosenkavlier at ENO from 22 May.