Harrison Birtwistle: Punch and Judy

English National Opera

Young Vic, 22 April 2008 4 stars

Punch and Judy (Photo: Catherine Ashmore/ENO)Harrison Birtwistle's first opera, Punch and Judy, is a music theatre work of utmost vitality, and violence. Written and premiered all of forty years ago, it is a piece that can still express the vigour of creative beginnings, that can still show the energy and brazenness of youth. Whereas Birtwistle's most recent work, The Minotaur, exhibited many signifying hallmarks of classical opera (right down to the mythical framework), Punch and Judy is an 'opera' that operates much more outside and around the borders of the genre, despite the similarities of musical style that can be detected in both works.

Punch and Judy constantly plays with audiences' expectations of what a music theatre work can be; much of the vocal writing for instance presents a parodically referential, Wagnerian-type style of antic recitation. To the same effect, different devices (Passion Chorales, adream sequence)are employed throughout to ensure that even when characters are dead they can return to comment on and take emotional part in the action. But Birtwistle and the librettist, Stephen Pruslin, always manage to balance this music-dramatic self-consciousness with enough original contributions to the aesthetics of the genre to ensure that our affections are aroused, as much as our intellects are piqued. Birtwistle's esteemed operatic canon of heavily ritualised and repetitive works, responsible as much as anyone else's creations for whatever present vigour the form can boast of, can in fact be seen to have proceeded to a large extent from the bold template set out in this early work.

Punch and Judy (Photo: Catherine Ashmore/ENO)Based quite straightforwardly on the traditional fairground dynamics of Punch and Judy shows (albeit with the tension and shock factor ratcheted up here by the fact that the characters have literally come alive and aloud), the great thrill of the work is that it holds its nerve right to the end in refusing to expiate Punch's murderous calumnies with ultimate recognition, and redemption. Though we see him earlier in the play very graphically murder his baby and his wife amongst other characters, in the end Punch elopes with Pretty Polly, and emerges unbowed, triumphant, and terrible. The stereotypical moral journey of conventional opera and theatre is turned on its head here. The work's unique tone is made all the more powerful and potent as a result. We moreover constantly feel in Punch and Judy a tension between horrific tragedy and farcical comedy (often in the same actions) that complements the strange moral journey (or lack of) of the piece. This tension can in fact be said to be the work's most prominent feature. Most typically generated by the extraordinary collision between the fairground setting and characters, and the homicidal carnage of the narrative, the uneasy ambiguity provides the play with much of its affective resonance. It is vital that any performance does justice to the work's idiom by choreographing above all an interesting dialogue between the two emotional poles of comedy and tragic horror.

The new ENO production of Punch and Judy, given at the Young Vic and conducted by an energised and clearly jubilant Edward Gardner, largely succeeds in promoting and developing the its strange character. Presented without interval (running time of about 100 minutes), in the round, and without surtitles or amplification for the singers, the production is strong on visual and physical thrills.

Designed by Giles Cadle and directed by Danile Kramer, the staging works well with the relatively small performance space at its disposal by allowing the wonderfully garishly dressed and decorated singers to move freely and energetically about during many of the scenes (often to within inches of the audience). This often thrilling ballet is offset by the distribution of the more static set pieces around various points of the performance space. The three ritual burying sequences that occur towards the back of the stage where characters sing a choraleas they are lowered dolorously into their grave, and Polly's first appearances where she quite fantastically and maniacally shows and sings to Punch on a glittering, disco ball-like balcony, are perhaps the most effective in providing the show with visual and physical contrast for its generally irrepressible displays of physical dynamism.

Punch and Judy (Photo: Catherine Ashmore/ENO)The singers respond very well to the demands placed on them by the extreme pitch of the production and the music. Each of the performers seeks to highlight the very artifice of their character, of the setting, and of their unnatural and strained vocal lines by almost always communicating at a tenor outside normal boundaries and customs of social behaviour. Andrew Shore's demonic glee as Punch, Gillian Keith's mechanical rigidity as Polly, Graeme Broadbent and Graham Clark's surreal buffoonery as the Doctor and Lawyer, Ashley Holland's menace and authority as Choregos, and Lucy Schaufer's melodramatic gloom as Judy all contribute to the force of the unusual burlesque on stage.

Though the absence of surtitles and microphones might mean that, for those unfamiliar with the opera, certain nuances of the libretto's wordplay (a vital ingredient in this recreative, parodic work) and of the narrative might be lost, it was generally refreshing to me to be able for once to focus in on events on stage as opposed to on the sometimes dictatorial surtitles of most operatic productions. The fact that this work presents such a simple narrative (Punch commits horrendous crimes, has nightmare where retribution is suggested, then finally triumphs by winning Polly and escaping contrition) also counteracts the absence of surtitles. The singers do well without their mics, with Shore and a radiant Keith especially relishing the chance the situation affords them to let loose the full power of their vocal cords. It is a testament to the production that only occasionally do the high standards of diction and vocal articulation slip into muddiness and indistinction (in what is a generally strongly-acted and sung performance, Holland's expression as Choregos can often be most culpable in this regard).

Punch and Judy (Photo: Catherine Ashmore/ENO)The conductor and his agile chamber ensemble, like the singers, do well to establish some sense of forward momentum in a work where local repetition and variation of material, along with broad recalls of earlier numbers (Punch's thrice returning 'Resolve' is especially reinvigorated and menacing at each repeated hearing), make up the prime matter of the score. Birtwistle's wonderful music, literally full of what is probably thousands of little memorable angular motifs and textures that are usually shared amongst the wind players, rarely palls in this opera. The ear is constantly alerted to the return of a dramatic event or emotion by the return and development of a catchy little interval or scalar figure in the ensemble, and it is a great pleasure to listen to what is a vastly accessible musical canvass. Modern composers have taken a lot from Birtwistle's brave advocacy of bullish repetition, and it is interesting to be able to identify versions of his technique in the music of composers like Walter Zimmerman and Wolfgang Rihm. The parallel suggests Birtwistle, strangely, as a harbinger of the New Simplicity school of composition.

In a dramatic work, of course, this tendency towards repetition can be a blemish as much as a boon. The symbolic power of recalling music-dramatic signals in new contexts always tends, if uncontrolled, towards static arrest of the narrative. Gardner seems aware of this, as do the musicians and singers, and they thus seek to input a fresh impetus and emphasis into each repetition, and to control the pacing by distributing much of the energy into the final scenes. The brief little mobile phrases of the ensemble, which is arrayed effectively at the side of the performing space on a raised platform, are always sounded with precision and purpose. The stark atonality and discontinuous rhythmic profile of the work are handled skilfully by all involved. Gardner, in committed form, should be especially commended for ensuring that the violence and blares of the score never discount the requirements for accurate and integrated playing that the score demands.

Punch and Judy (Photo: Catherine Ashmore/ENO)Unfortunately their efforts are not enough to prevent some malaise creeping in, particularly in the third quarter of the performance. There, during the nightmare sequence where we get to see an imagined grand censure for Punch, the frenzy of the production dominates intelligibility somewhat, and the circularity of the music for once leaves one cold. The hallucinatory onslaught of images and scenes simply strays too far into chaos, with the performers failing to create the sort of realistic and compelling unreality they do elsewhere.

Things quickly pick up, however, for the last scenes, after Punch has woken up. His make-up is there removed, his outfit shorn, and his danger and dominion firmly returned. Shore manages this transformation very well, ensuring that none of the terrible glamour of the character is lost along with all of his visual trinkets. He is able to make his by now masterfully authoritative presence and singing, along with his potently psychotic repertoire of facial expressions, compensate for the loss of the easily communicative costume and make-up he'd earlier been blessed with. His final duet with Polly, along with the collective valediction of 'Apostrophe', sounds nicely the bells of rhetorical (though not of course emotional) resolution. That the audience is left bewildered by this end (as was the case at the premiere at least) is a profound testament to the power of the production. Moreover, in Shore's Punch and in Gillian Keith's searing and shrill Polly, two operatic creations of the highest order are here established.

Punch and Judy remains profoundly unique to audiences because of its highly peculiar assertion of the applicability of horror, and of fairground surreality, to opera aesthetics. This production confidently reinvigorates every raw and revolting sinew of Birtwistle's marvellously decadent work that arises out of this marriage of aesthetics, and it manages to convey a new horror and snarl all of its own. For thrills and blood spills of a highly unusual character, look no further than this exciting new ENO production.    

By Stephen Graham

Read our recent interview with Andrew Shore about this production of Punch and Judy and returning to The Barber of Seville at ENO next year, plus forthcoming engagements in L'heure espagnole at the Royal Opera House, here.