Linbury Studio, Royal Opera House
Punch – Gwion Thomas
Choregos/Jack Ketch – Jeremy Huw Williams
Pretty Polly/Witch – Allison Bell
Doctor – Nicholas Folwell
Lawyer – Peter Hoare
Judy/Fortune Teller – Carol Rowlands
Michael McCarthy (director)
Simon Banham (designs)
Ace McCarron (lighting)
Music Theatre Wales
Michael Rafferty (conductor)
Birtwistle season is upon us in London. Last week, the Nash Ensemble and Andrew Watts pieces from his Orpheus Elegies at the Wigmore Hall, and next month will see the world premiere of The Minotaur at Covent Garden and the English National Opera’s Punch and Judy at the Young Vic. The Royal Opera House pre-empted ENO, by inviting Music Theatre Wales to revive its production of Punch and Judy in the Linbury Studio, as part of the ROH2 programme. Whilst two productions of Birtwistle’s tragicomedy might seem excessive to some, the prospect of comparison is for many of us enticing indeed.
Punch and Judy was first performed forty years ago at Aldeburgh. Imagine the reaction! Britten, it seems, was none too pleased; accounts differ, but he is said to have walked out. We approach the work from a different standpoint, of course, and it is impossible for many of us not to consider Birtwistle’s subsequent œuvre in the light of this early cause célèbre. The preoccupation with ritual tellings and retellings, enactments and re-enactments, of myth has been a running thread throughout his career, and not only in terms of the stage. Punch and Judy remains, however, a violent, even shocking piece of music theatre, crucial for anyone for whom musical drama is a living art form rather than a platform for x and y to sing in the nth revival of Tosca.
Birtwistle directs that a five-piece wind ensemble should be placed on stage. Here, the entire fifteen-strong orchestra was placed immediately behind the puppet booth, which framed most of the action. Simon Banham’s designs and Michael McCarthy’s production were generally straightforward and all the more powerful for that. This is not, I think, a work that really partakes of ambiguity, at least not in that sense. Colours, costumes, and movement all complemented the ritual of Birtwistle’s music and Stephen Pruslin’s fine libretto. The latter is surely one of the great opera texts; it could hardly have been more consonant with the composer’s own interest in both the mechanics of musical theatre and in verse-refrain forms, the latter of which dates back to the 1959 wind quintet, Refrains and Choruses. Cycles, repetitions, symmetries are mirrored in the music – and were here attentively presented in the production too. There was no attempt to shy away from Punch’s violence, for instance in his murder of the baby with a syringe and his knifing of Judy, but never did one have the impression of sensationalism. (David McVicar would have profited from taking note in his recent Salome.) This was real violence, in a sense all the more real for its ritual artifice. The immediacy of the Linbury’s space measurably heightened the dramatic tension.
The singing was mixed. None of it was bad, but I did not find Peter Hoare’s Lawyer and Nicholas Folwell’s Doctor as impressive as the rest of the cast. Their interpretations seemed a little generalised and they sometimes had difficulty making themselves heard above the small but loud orchestra. It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to warm to Pretty Polly, but Allison Bell brought a marvellous technique to the role, which needs just that to fulfil its sometimes stratospheric demands. Carol Rowlands proved a powerful musical actress as Judy. Gwion Thomas might have strayed a little close to undue caricature at times – although this must largely be a matter of taste – but he vividly inhabited the central role of Punch. Perhaps finest was Jeremy Huw Williams as Choregos, the Puppet Master. After an ever so slightly unsure start, his was a scintillating performance, both musically and visually, alert to the demands of the text and highly successful at projecting them. The ensemble pieces all worked very well: slower numbers, such as the Passion chorales, penetrated to the heart of the strange lyricism that is just as much Birtwistle’s hallmark as the violence. In this, the cast was greatly aided by the orchestra of Music Theatre Wales and by Michael Rafferty’s authoritative conducting. Totally secure in rhythm and orchestral balance, whilst still sounding newly minted, the transformations from freneticism to haunting, almost antique beauty were faultlessly conveyed. The drama lies just as much here as on stage proper, and no one could have been in any doubt as to that.