Punch and Judy - Music Theatre Wales, Royal Opera House Linbury Studio, 17 March 2008
It's Harrison Birtwistle season in London, with this Music Theatre Wales production of his Punch and Judy and the ENO's version at the end of April bookending a premiere, The Minotaur at the Royal Opera House.
It's been marketed by both producers as 'contemporary', and I suppose stood next to Gluck or Puccini, it is. And the composer is still very much alive.
But in fact this opera is forty years old. It dates from 1968, the time of the Beatles, Richard Nixon and black and white TV. I would have needed a puter the size of a cathedral to blog it, and you would have had to come here and read it over my shoulder.
Times have changed.
Reputedly, Benjamin Britten walked out of its Aldeburgh premiere all those years ago in disgust. Today, though the Royal Opera House sternly warns that the production is 'Not suitable for children', I suspect most tinies would adore its bright colours, loud noises, toonish violence and joyous teletubby Mr Punch. They would love to watch its blowtorching of Tiny Tears. And while perhaps not all in tonight's audience liked it, I doubt if any were shocked. With our expectations modified by forty years of popular culture, we can appreciate it for itself rather than the bold detour it may have seemed to represent.
Michael McCarthy's brilliantly unfussy production mirrors the brash and unfetching music. Costumes and gestures are bold, physical features grotesquely accentuated. Judy has a lumpy hairnet, Pretty Polly has brightly rouged cheeks. Punch carries his characteristic hooked nose strapped to his back like a rucksack, while his face is crudely painted.
Punch's goal is to woo and win the lovely Pretty Polly, but the core of the drama is the string of murders he commits en route -- baby, wife, lawyer and doctor then puppeteer, here presented as prop, actor, spectators and producer. The murders form a ritualistic cycle in the repetitions of Birtwistle's music, wonderfully emphasised in the staging. Rag doll effigies representing each victim one-by-one fill a line of hangman's nooses swinging over the little stage. The production takes an utterly literal view of the text, using set design and lighting to magnify fleeting references to details like colour and direction which change as Punch's journey progresses. Behind the puppet theatre in which most of the action takes place, the orchestra, the real people, can be seen throughout.
Some of the most abrasive extremes of the score are in the vocal lines, and although poor diction often obscured the text, the colours remained clear and intact. Gwion Thomas coped splendidly with the main role, and Jeremy Huw Williams with the many varied demands of the ringmaster-Choregos. Judy's merciless grating was faithfully rendered by Carol Rowlands.
There is nothing much resembling a tune in the whole hundred minutes. But with repetition the musical shapes became curiously memorable in conductor Michael Rafferty's intelligent reading.
I'd wondered beforehand about the wisdom of booking both of the Punch and Judy productions -- this is no Magic Flute. But who knows, maybe ENO can pull off something as riveting and accomplished as this. We shall see.