Monday, April 21, 2008

A Serial-Killer Opera

I found Rupert Christiansen's Telegraph review of the new English National Opera production of Harrison Birtwistle's Punch and Judy a fascinating read. I once used the CD of the performance of this work by The London Sinfonietta to push the envelope with one of my research groups in Singapore and would like nothing more than to see a staging of this work here in San Francisco. In his limited column space Christiansen did an excellent job of setting context before undertaking critical assessment:

But the more I get to know Punch and Judy, the more powerful and fascinating it becomes.

Perhaps the best way to approach it is as a primitivist opera, born before the genre became noble, romantic and refined.

Critics have noted that Birtwistle and his librettist Stephen Pruslin draw on the conventions of Bach's Passions and Greek drama, but even deeper is the influence of pantomime and puppet-show theatricality and anonymous urban folk traditions - playground games, crude ditties, tavern rounds, the clang and clatter of street and fairground.

Stravinsky's Petrushka comes to mind, too, refracted in its abruptly episodic structure - the score is composed of more than 100 tiny units, few more than a minute long - and the bright, hard orchestral colours and relish in dissonance.

I like the reference to Igor Stravinsky and certainly understand it; but, when you take in all the factors that Christiansen enumerated and then add in the fact that Punch is, in modern language, a psychotic serial killer, then I suspect that any acknowledgement of Stravinsky should also include "Renard," which casts brutal murder into the framework of a clown-show portrayal of barnyard animals. Anyone fortunate enough to have seen the video of this work that The London Sinfonietta made under Paul Crossley along with a choreographed troupe of acrobats will immediately see the relevance of this connection.

Christiansen began last week's review of the Covent Garden premier of Birtwistle's The Minotaur by recalling when "the story went round that Benjamin Britten had stormed out of the premiere of his first opera, Punch and Judy." Birtwistle's worldview is a radical departure from Britten's in terms of both opera subject matter and musical language, and it is not hard to appreciate the way in which the former was pushing the wrong buttons for the latter. Since the opera had its first performance at the Aldeburgh Festival in 1968, it would be interesting to see whether, in retrospect, Birtwistle would now confess to having had some trepidations about bringing such raw stuff to Britten's "turf." Forty years on, however, the media have done a good job of shifting the bar for what constitutes "raw;" and it is hard to imagine a San Francisco audience finding this work "too much," just as, for the most part, they had no trouble getting into the extremes of the San Francisco Opera production of György Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre (which I would be delighted to see revived). To the best of my knowledge San Francisco Opera has not mounted any of Birtwistle's works; so, in light of the recent elevation of interest in London, now might be a good time to start thinking about doing so! "Right tol de riddle doll!"

No comments: