Harrison Birtwistle - Punch and Judy
Neue Oper Wien, 2014
Walter Kobéra, Leonard Prinsloo, Richard Rittelmann, Manuela Leonhartsberger, Till von Orlowsky, Jennifer Yoon, Lorin Wey, Johannes Schwendinger, Evamaria Mayer
Armel Opera Festival, ARTE Concert - 14 October 2014
With its Commedia dell' Arte origins and the violence of its content, the Punch and Judy English seaside puppet show was always a curious subject for a children's entertainment, but it's evident that the sinister nature of the show has inevitably had a marked impression on a generation of children. Much like the adult response now towards clowns, what once seemed like fun in a more innocent age now appears somewhat sinister and unsettling. Harrison Birtwistle's opera Punch and Judy takes advantage of all these connotations related to the origins and the nature of the work as well as what the appeal of it says about the English character.
The work caused a bit of a stir when it was premiered in 1968, with Benjamin Britten reportedly walking out of a performance of the work at Aldeburgh. Since Britten himself had a somewhat conflicted and critical view of the nature of the English society in his opera works, it's hard to imagine that he found the subject of Punch and Judy entirely unappealing, although it does admittedly push violence much further and take what appears to be a more extreme cartoonish view of character than anything in Britten's work. I would think that Britten's difficulty with Birtwistle's opera (if it's even true), may however lie in the unsettling nature of the music.
Even now at the age of 80, with several major celebrations this year to mark the occasion, Harrison Birtwistle has never been an accepted part of the musical establishment. His work can be difficult to listen to and challenging of conventions. Punch and Judy, amongst all the other reasons why the subject might be distasteful and vaguely disturbing, uses musical ideas, structures and dissonance in a way that is similar to, or perhaps even intentionally evokes resonances with Berg's treatments of the dark, violent subjects of Lulu and Wozzeck. With a fine libretto by Stephen Pruslin that perfectly suits Birtwistle's intent and structural methods, the work uses cyclical repetition and subtle subversion of musical and text motifs for impact.
The story of Punch and Judy is a familiar one, although over the years it has evolved its own pantomime conventions and characters. Punch, derived form the Commedia dell' Arte character Pulcinella, is a mean and violent trickster. The story itself has become a by-word for marital strife of a particularly violent nature. In Punch and Judy, Punch, disappointed with family life and attracted to the unattainable beauty of Pretty Polly, casually throws his baby in the fire, and when his wife discovers what he has done he brutally stabs her to death. Punch's efforts to win over Pretty Polly drive him to further crimes and murders of a doctor, a lawyer and his friend Choregos.
A grotesque parody of Commedia dell' Arte archetypes combined with some theatre of the absurd mannerisms; a satire of the English character as exemplified by life in seaside towns; Punch and Judy is a study of misery and malevolence that recognises some very disturbing as well as familiar character traits. Birtwistle's music and Pruslin's libretto don't so much expand on the character of Punch as take it out further into the world and consider it in the greater scheme of things. This Punch is geographically, astrologically, mathematically, musically, seasonally and colourfully located on his journey of destruction and mindless violence, and he wreaks havoc over the whole spectrum of human endeavour.
The only way the work can be any more sinister and disturbing is when it is staged, and the Neue Oper Wien production, performed at the Armel Opera Festival in Budapest, is truly the stuff of nightmares. "The bitterness of this moment is undeniably sweet/ The sweetness of this moment is undeniably bitter" is one of the recurrent phrases and motifs in the work, and that's the tone a staging of the work has to aim for. Leonard Prinsloo's direction for the Neue Oper Wien and Monika Biegler's set and costume design resembles something from Terry Gilliam or Tim Burton's worst nightmares.
That comparison suggests stylisation, but Punch and Judy should be aiming for archetypal rather than realism, and it has that here with an extra bite of grit and shadowy mystery. If you could imagine Burton or Gilliam directing Wozzeck, it might look something like this, but there are other operatic references worth considering in this field including Prokofiev's Love for Three Oranges and even Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann. Pretty Polly, the unattainable object of Punch's desires, would appear to be very much modelled on Olympia, the mechanical doll of Hoffmann's somewhat disturbing and illicit fascination. Pretty Polly even has the same high-end soprano range - even more exaggerated here - and it's sung marvellously by Jennifer Yoon in the production performed here at the Armel Opera Festival.
All of the roles however call for very specific voice ranges, and the casting elsewhere is impressive. There was an extraordinary power and beauty to mezzo-soprano Manuela Leonhartsberger's Judy/Fortune Teller, and Till von Orlowsky also impressed as Choregos. The principal role however, and the competition role for the festival was Hungarian Richard Rittelmann who handled the high baritone range of Punch very well. There's nothing easy about Birtwistle's writing for the voice and the role is also a physical one in a one-act opera that is almost two hours long, but like the rest of the cast, Rittlemann just threw himself into the madness of it all. That's the way to do it.
Links: ARTE Concert, Armel Opera Festival