"Punch and Judy" is a delightful "tragical comedy or comic tragedy", which rather sums up its anarchic spirit. When it was premiered at Aldeburgh in 1968, Benjamin Britten reportedly walked out. There's doubt about the story since it's unlikely that Britten would have intoroduced it to Aldeburgh in the first place without having seen the score.. Time, however, has vindicated Birtwistle, who has now become almost part of the establishment. without sacrificing his idiosyncratic soul.
Punch is a vicious psychotic, and the policeman almost equally evil. Violence is staple fare in popular culture – think of Sylvester the Cat and Tweetie Pie. On the other hand, Tweetie Pie always escapes, and is clearly a character to identify with. Punch, however, is an unredeemed psychotic, an evil force straight out of the Id, controlling and himself uncontrollable. Traditionally, Punch and Judy are puppets safely contained within the confines of a booth. On stage, however, they are unrestrained and wander dangerously free. Birtwistle creates a tight musical structure to hold in the drama, a kind of musical puppet booth, perhaps even a prison without walls. The action starts and ends with the Choregos (Greek chorus), who comment on the action with an element of detachment: when he himself is drawn into the action part way through, it’s quite unsettling, as Birtwistle no doubt knew. The music is also organised in distinct sections, modelled explicitly on the Bach Passions. This adds yet another disturbing element to the whole, but has a certain logic, given that Birtwistle has said he considered the St Matthew Passion "an ideal in that the very layout and structure of the work constitute a kind of theatre which does not depend on theatrical realisation to make its point".
Fifty years on, the music doesn’t sound nearly as bizarre as it must have sounded at first hearing. Indeed, now we've heard fifty more years of Birtwistle's strikingly original idiom, we can appreciate Punch and Judy all the more. Oddly enough I can now hear the Brittenesque aspects of Birtwistle's music, and imagine what might have drawn Britten to Birtwistle in the first place, even if Punch and Judy might have seemed a bit much, once.