Home | Reviews | Articles | Festivals | Competitions | Other | Contact Us

Birtwistle's first and last operas

Punch and Judy
ENO At The Young Vic 21 April 2008

Libretto Stephen Pruslin
Choregos / Jack Ketch – Ashley Holland
Punch – Andrew Shore
Judy / Fortune Teller – Lucy Schaufer
Lawyer – Graham Clark
Doctor – Graeme Broadbent
Pretty Polly / Witch – Gillian Keith

Ensemble of English National Opera Orchestra/Leo Hussain
Daniel Kramer – Director
Giles Cadle – Designer
Peter Mumford – Lighting designer
Quinny Sacks – Choreographer
Young Vic Theatre, The Cut, Waterloo, London

Only Stephen Pruslin, Harrison Birtwistle's inspirational collaborator, was short-changed in this ground-breaking recreation of what may ultimately prove to be the most enduring of the composer's theatrical works (c.f. e.g "The libretto overflows with many-layered allusiveness and Joycean wordplay, almost none of which could be appreciated in this performance without recourse to a word book." [New York Times, April 1988]).

Having loved this opera since its scarifying premiere production at Aldeburgh's tiny Jubillee Hall and treasuring David Atherton's recording - later Opera Factory's at London's Drill Hall plus its TV video - I thought I knew it well enough. But too much attention was diverted futilely trying to hear and remember the text, which I ought to have re-read before going to the Young Vic for the second press night.

That was conducted with complete assurance by Edward Gardner's alternate, Leo Hussain, who was helped to achieve synchrony by a ring of video monitors around the circle.

ENO (for long ambivalent about joining the revolution*) failed to provide sur-titles, which could so conveniently have been projected either side of Pretty Polly's tower (no possibility to hear words at her stratospheric tessitura).

Sur-titles are as necessary for opera in English as for performances in foreign tongues and no longer distracting for those members of audiences who prefer to ignore them.

That will no doubt be remedied with optional sub-titles in the DVD which absolutely must be made of this great production?

Enough has been written about the all round excellence of the performances, amongst the most perceptive of the fuller reviews that by my part-namesake in Musical Criticism... (websites are unhampered by space limitations).

Of particular note was the emergence of human emotion towards the end; the love scene between Punch and his Pretty Polly (wife Judy had been despatched long since, but she doubled as the Fortune Teller) reminded me inescapably of that between Nero and Poppea, the triumphant anti-hero and his ascendant paramour, which concludes Monteverdi's opera...

Director Daniel Kramer and his team earn plaudits for the inspired use of architect Haworth Tompkins' New Young Vic, with its state of the art stage machinery. Nowhere else, nor ever before, have I seen so triumphant a vindication of theatre-in-the-round.

With the usual chamber cast of six expanded wittily with Punch-clones brilliantly choreographed, it leaves you wondering whether the invention of the proscenium arch hadn't retarded the development of theatre for eons.

Peter Grahame Woolf


Encircling Forty Years
The Minotaur at the Royal Opera House 30 April 2008
& ENO’s production of Punch and Judy

Birtwistle The Minotaur
The Minotaur – John Tomlinson Ariadne – Christine Rice Theseus – Johan Reuter Ker – Amanda Echalaz Hiereus – Philip Langridge Snake Priestess – Andrew Watts First Innocent – Rebecca Bottone Second Innocent – Pumeza Matschikiza Third Innocent – Wendy Dawn Thompson Fourth Innocent – Christopher Ainslie Fifth Innocent – Tim Mead The Royal Opera Chorus The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House Antonio Pappano Stephen Langridge – Director Alison Chitty – Designs Paul Pyant – Lighting design Philippe Giraudeau – Choreography Leo Warner & Mark Grimmer – Video designs
The Royal Opera, Covent Garden, London

Harrison Birtwistle’s most recent opera, which he has stated is to be his last, has recently been running to well justified acclaim at the Royal Opera House. His first, premiered at Aldeburgh in 1968, provoked a more controversial reaction, and the exit of Britten and Pears during the performance has come to dominate reports of that occasion.

A timely new production by ENO, staged at the Young Vic, gave London audiences the chance to see the two works within the space of a few days and evaluate each in the context of the other (and both productions are highly recommended).

The first thing that is noticeable is how well Birtwistle writes for the voice.  Stephen Pruslin’s libretto for Punch and Judy is fast moving and full of word play.  On paper it looks a real challenge to get even a good proportion of the words across, yet the skilful balance between the chamber orchestra and singers, always gives them the opportunity to project their words, depending though on where you sit.  The opera works particularly well in the round, and it is a rare privilege to observe the acting of opera singers at very close range.  

The Minotaur unfolds its story in a more leisurely way. The orchestra is much enlarged, over-spilling into boxes on either side of the stage, and augmented by further drums on stage, but it never swamps the singing.  Birtwistle achieves the art of allowing the big orchestral sound to augment and reinforce the singing and every word of David Harsent’s text was distinguishable.   Albeit on the conventional ROH stage, a circular set drew attention to the focus of the action.

In each opera the central characters is entrapped within a physical cage.  The Minotaur is half man and half beast, the one raging and slaughtering everything in his path, whilst the sensitive human within him can only surface during sleep.  Punch, a puppet and stock character of the circus, must constantly return to his box of props to renew his grease paint and alternates murderous quests with episodes in which a more sensitive being is slowly revealed.  

Violence is central to both themes, though in the Minotaur it is the Keres, those winged vampires, who really are “red in tooth and claw", led by the redoubtable Amanda Echalaz making an auspicious ROH debut.    

Both pieces demonstrate a taste for the theatrical – witness transformation of the mime dancers into skulls and the snake goddess rising on an imaginary pedestal to deliver her prophecy.

Both productions are superb, with exceptionally good lighting and casts that include some of the UK’s finest acting singers.   The Orchestras play well, each company fielding its Musical Director for the occasion, and the moments of orchestral lyricism are really gorgeous.    Birtwistle has been “done proud”, fully deserved for a composer who totally understands the way to make opera work.

Serena Fenwick

*see the end of the Surtitles Controversy?

P&J Photos: Catherine Ashmore
Minotaur Photos: Bill Cooper