When I first heard this recording several years ago when it was reissued by NMC, I found it to be repellent, centered on a serial killer who wins the girl in the end. It has taken hearing a lot more Birtwistle, coming to enjoy opera more, and gaining some perspective, but coming back to "Punch and Judy," I can now appreciate its audacity. The music and the singing are quite impressive, and my reservations have to do primarily with finding a satisfactory interpretation for the multi-layered storyline.
The opera was written in 1967 by Birtwistle and Stephen Pruslin, who is credited with the "scenario and libretto," based on the 1828 source text, the first script for the popular Punch and Judy plays, written by John Collier. This performance was recorded at Decca Studios in London in 1979. David Atherton leads the London Sinfonietta, the superb contemporary music ensemble, and an excellent cast including Jan DeGaetani as Judy, Phyllis Bryn-Julson as Polly, and John Tomlinson as the Doctor. Atherton was the conductor of the premiere performances at the Aldeburgh Festival in 1968. I once read that a Seventies production was shown on BBC TV, with the singers in giant, grotesque puppet costumes. Was that this production? I can't say. But as with most operas, certainly contemporary operas, "Punch and Judy" demands to be seen, and not only heard.
"Punch and Judy" is a highly stylized work, and is certainly not meant to be taken at face value. Understanding how it *is* to be taken is not a simple matter. Pruslin's essay in the liner notes is informative, as is David Beard's analysis in Harrison Birtwistle's Operas and Music Theatre, but I am still left unsure as to how to interpret the narrative. A key from Pruslin is that Punch by no means is meant to win Polly after all his horrific murders, which still seems to me to be the most obvious, logical interpretation. As Pruslin explains, "[t]he ending of the opera is in fact expressly designed as a photographic 'double-image' with an amoral couple like Nero and Poppea as the 'negative' and an ideal couple like Tamino-Pamina or Leonore-Florestan as the 'positive.' And this in turn relates to the fact that we both saw the work ultimately as an opera about opera. It is an opera in quotation marks."
The 32-page booklet includes the entire libretto, which is quite helpful not only in disentangling the parallel stories of the "two couples," but in understanding the lyrics, which are for the most part unintelligible, despite being sung in English, because of the operatically altered emphasis on syllables. Interrupting the main storyline of Punch's murderous rampage are dream passages of Punch riding a horse (Horsey) "suspended between Heaven and Earth ... travel[ing] eastward to the land of eternal innocence." This is his quest for Pretty Polly, and this innocent Punch apparently forms half of the ideal couple. It is still not totally clear to me how one Punch can add up to two couples, though, and Judy remains dead at the end -- hence my lack of confidence in Pruslin's explanation. I suppose the one couple (Punch and Polly) is supposed to be two couples, one good and one evil.
In a nightmare sequence Punch is tried and convicted for his crimes. But what follows is, again, confusing as he apparently outwits his executioner. But it's only a dream sequence in any event... In the end Punch marries Polly, and there are definitely not two couples anywhere in sight. Perhaps it would be more clear on stage.
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David Beard provides some interesting context. Birtwistle, Peter Maxwell Davies, and Stephen Pruslin formed a musical group in 1967 called the Pierrot Players, after the famous piece by Schoenberg. The group didn't last for long, but Beard argues that it is a clue to a major influence on "Punch and Judy." Pulcinella, which was Anglicized to Punchinello, and hence Punch, was a stock character in commedia dell'arte, along with Pierrot, and thus there is a significant overlap between "Pierrot Lunaire" and Punch of "Punch and Judy."
Beard reveals that the piece uses a symmetrical but disguised chromatic wedge throughout, which culminates and becomes audible during the "Black Wedding Procession" in Punch's nightmare. The work is obviously an example of the grotesque, and I found Beard's analysis of "the subversive Punch" in working-class satirical performances to be a crucial point. A high point of the music is Judy's da capo passion aria, which Beard argues is a parody of opera. The character Choregos can be seen to symbolize opera, and hence the murder of Choregos by Punch can be seen as an expression of Attali's view that "music is a simulacrum of ritual murder. Attali also said that "noise is murder," and that opera represents the domestication of music.
On this interpretation, Pruslin and Birtwistle are, in their opera of grotesque brutality, rebelling against the domestication of music. On the other hand, it was 1967, and I suspect that the Vietnam War and the threat of nuclear war may have been crucial in framing the work's violence.
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