Monday, 27 October 2014

Harrison Birtwistle Punch and Judy - new production

A new production of Harrison Birtwistle's Punch and Judy now available online on arte tv. Although Punch and Judy was Birtwistle's big public breakthrough, it's rarely done, so any chance to see it is worthwhile. This new production comes from the small but enterprising Armel Opera Festival  based in Budapest, though this performance comes from Vienna.  Neither cast nor production are world-class but  finesse is perhaps the last thing you'd want in Punch and Judy, Indeed, the raw enthusiasm of the cast and the rough edges in the production are rather effective in an opera where fairground puppets go berserk and beat each other up. The orchestra, Amadeus Ensemble Wien, conducted by Walter Kobéra,  definitely has a feel for Birtwistle's idiom  The theatre is very small, which emphasizes the intense, claustrophobic atmosphere. All in all, a good, idiomatic realization.

"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.

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