Harrison Birtwistle: Punch & Judy

Harrison Birtwistle: Punch & Judy

by David Atherton


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Harrison Birtwistle: Punch & Judy

Harrison Birtwistle's first opera, "Punch and Judy" (1966-1967), is not for the faint of heart, either musically or dramatically. Auden described Stephen Pruslin's formally innovative and semantically clever libretto as one of the finest of the twentieth century. The artificial conventions of the medieval "Punch and Judy" puppet show offer some emotional distance from the plot's unflinching cruelty, but the opera remains profoundly unsettling. The creators sum up the ambiguity of the opera's moral, or amoral, universe by describing it as A Tragical Comedy or A Comical Tragedy, and that's an apt designation for its dramatic peculiarity. Birtwistle's music is largely piercingly spiky, but there are moments of lyricism, and his text setting has a musical logic that moves the plot forward, rather than creating the kind of generalized vocal hysteria that can drain atonal opera of any dramatic energy. The transparent instrumental writing, which can trace its lineage to "L'histoire du Soldat," is often goofily witty, creating an ironic foil to the grimness of the story being enacted on-stage. The opera is divided into discrete numbers, many of them extremely brief, in parody of Baroque opera, and the scenes are framed by choruses based on the model of Bach's "St. Matthew Passion." The opera's many layers of meaning and the richness that's evident in its complexity make it a compelling work that rewards multiple hearings and careful attention to its intriguing details. The performance it receives here, based on a 1979 production, could hardly be improved upon. The soloists are consistently first rate and give their all to the opera's considerable musical and dramatic demands. New music veterans Phyllis Bryn-Julson, Jan de Gaetani, and David Wilson-Johnson are especially to be commended for maintaining beautifully pure tone in the fiendishly difficult vocal lines. The London Sinfonietta, conducted by David Atherton, plays with the precision and abandon that the score requires.

Product Details

Release Date: 06/26/2007
Label: Nmc Records
UPC: 0675754000639
catalogNumber: 138
Rank: 163307


  1. Punch and Judy, opera

    1. Prologue  (04:36)
    2. Roundel - 1st movement  (06:31)
    3. Homage to Judy  (07:40)
    4. Recitative and Passion Aria 2  (03:35)
    5. Resolve 1  (01:09)
    6. Proclamation 3  (07:46)
    7. Passion Chorale 1  (02:13)
    8. Nightmare  (02:18)
    9. Toccata 1 B  (05:19)
    10. Tarot-Game - 1st Draw  (05:29)
    11. Pretty Polly's Rhapsody 1  (02:24)
    12. Quartet  (12:35)
    13. Sinfonia  (08:13)
    14. Toccata 3 A  (03:18)
    15. War-Cry  (04:58)
    16. Melodrama 4  (03:19)
    17. Toccata 2 B  (05:30)
    18. Death March  (03:37)
    19. Pretty Polly's Rhapsody 2  (06:02)
    20. Triumph  (06:49)

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