Punch and Judy

April 23, 2008

I just returned from a performance of Birtwistle’s Punch and Judy in the Young Vic. It was his first opera composed over forty years ago, before the latter opera’s of Brittain with whom he overlaps. I think that Bertwistle, Maxwell and Adams in different ways are the three greats of modern opera, and comparable with the creativity and originality that characterised the period around the turn of the last century: Verdi and Puccini but not Wagner. No one is in the same league as Wagner, although Bertwistle’s most recent, The Minotaur comes close. One of the very different things about tonight’s performance was that it was in a very small theatre, in the round. Queuing to get in I discovered the composer behind me! Sitting to the side, at times I could have touched the singers. You could see the sweat on their brows and the intensity of the experience was grated for its increased intimacy. The brilliance of the work is the way he takes a common story, Punch and Judy and translates it into a complex series of interactions; the juxtaposition of violence and sex, of brutality and sensitivity to give two examples. Opera for me is a complete experience, and Wagnerian opera transcendent . Everything is there, music, drama, art and the voices of great stars you feel physically, you don’t just hear them. It’s also a living art, for over 200 years now we have had a continuous flow of high quality original material.

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