Notes and Editorial Reviews
Punch and Judy
David Atherton, cond; Stephen Roberts (
); Jan DeGaetani (
); Phyllis Bryn-Julson (
); Philip Langridge (
); David Wilson-Johnson (
); John Tomlinson (
NMC 138 (2 CDs: 99:24
Text and Translation)
Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s
Punch and Judy
, “A tragical comedy or a comical tragedy,” was a work that shook the very bedrock of the British musical establishment. It caused Britten, famously, to walk out at the 1968 Aldburgh premiere. Seen from our perspective, it is difficult to see why Britten should react so strongly. After all, violence is present in
Rape of Lucretia
, for example). Perhaps it was Birtwistle’s uncompromising language, or his free way with events. Judy, remember, is murdered several times. Maybe it is the exorcism (part of “Murder Ensemble III”). The way to the ritual that lies at the heart of Birtwistle’s expression is clear. Not that all here is explosive violence. Try “Prayer I,” a choral plea for calm weather as Punch journeys, seeking out Pretty Polly. Punch’s reply is of aching lyricism (Stephen Roberts has the full measure of this, just as he does the more disjunct, forceful lines). Or try “Punch’s Serenade III,” a heart-rending aria that receives an even more gut-wrenching reaction from Choregos (“Weep, my Punch”).
The cast is stellar. David Wilson-Johnson is superb as Choregos, not only in the Prologue (surely a passage indebted to the opening of Berg’s
), but in “Moral I,” where he sings expressively, “Weep, my Punch. Weep out your unfathomable, inexpressible sorrow.” Also, just listen to the combination of Doctor and Lawyer (“Couplets”) and revel in the fact that this is Langridge and Tomlinson you are experiencing, and both singers in their prime too. Confidence bursts out of their every syllable. A shame the Lawyer is murdered with a huge quill pen and the doctor by a giant hypodermic needle! Ouch.
Jan DeGaetani sings Judy’s Lullaby beautifully (note also how her pitching and her articulation in the “Passion Aria II” are both text-book and expressive), while the indefatigable Phyllis Bryn-Julson as the “other woman,” Pretty Polly, is as expert as ever (she was always a great favorite with Boulez in his London concerts). Bryn-Julson sings her “Spring has come” from the final section of the opera, “Punch triumphans,” with astonishing intensity. Her other character, the Witch, finds her in expansive, sweetly lyrical form in the “Black Wedding.” Stephen Roberts’s Punch is all it should be—a virtuoso all-round affair that takes in extremes of tenderness (try the final love-duet between Punch and Pretty Polly) and its polar opposite.
Full libretto is included, as is a reproduction of the line drawing of the stage-plan (although, typically, it is described as, “Not so much a specific stage-plan as an abstraction of the fixed elements of the opera represented in space”). Stephen Pruslin, the librettist, contributes a fascinating essay. His assertion that “insofar as it [
] does partake of the invisible theatre I think it might well work better as a purely aural experience than certain other operas that stem from different theatrical assumptions” seems to me spot-on, and this recording acts as the most eloquent proof thereof. The original recording was outstanding (the producer was James Mallinson; engineer, Stanley Goodall—only the best, then). David Lefeber (of Metier Records) has done a sterling job of remastering. A triumph all round.
By the way, U.K. readers (and U.S. readers who are planning a trip over to London) may be interested to note that there will be a new staging of
Punch and Judy
at the English National Opera (conducted by the young, talented Edward Gardner) in 2008.
FANFARE: Colin Clarke
Works on This Recording
Punch and Judy by Harrison Birtwistle
Phyllis Bryn-Julson (Soprano),
David Wilson-Johnson (Baritone),
Stephen Roberts (Baritone),
John Tomlinson (Bass),
Jan DeGaetani (Mezzo Soprano),
Philip Langridge (Tenor)
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1968; England
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