Following a rough-round-the-edges staging in the Linbury Studio last month, ENO’s production of Birtwistle’s first opera bursts with colour, motion and gruesome playfulness. This Ubuesque tragical-comedy-cum-comic-tragedy ducks and dives, swells and exhales, charges and stutters its way through wooings and killings, and director Daniel Kramer gives us a production to match Birtwistle and Pruslin’s disturbing but hugely entertaining vision.
Much has been made of Kramer’s commedia dell’arte credentials. He has studied the origins of the story and immersed himself in the spirit of the rough and ready, highly physical street theatre tradition and in keeping with this, his stellar cast give fully-committed physicalisations of their grotesque characters.
Full-bodied too is the orchestra, conducted at the second performance with gusto by Leo Hussain (sharing the job with Edward Gardner over the five-performance run). They realise Birtwistle’s varied score – driving militaristic rushes, gentle lyrical laments and everything else in between with precision, depth and, when needed, great delicacy.
The extraordinary line-up of singer/actors could hardly be bettered – Lucy Schaufer’s Judy, Graham Clark’s Lawyer, Graeme Broadbent’s Doctor and Ashley Holland’s solid Choregos are all excellent. Topping them all, one of the best character singers around, Andrew Shore storms triumphantly as the ghastly Punch. Both coy and vicious, he is the bully in a macabre playground, a bizarre human mannequin, mischievous and quick-witted, playing to the gallery and getting away with more than murder.
An innovation of the production is Punch cloning himself; six dancing doppelgangers fill the stage and the mayhem that follows is an insurgency of prancing, tumbling demons. Aloft in a tower is the object of Punch’s affections, a lewdly-gesturing and posturing Pretty Polly. A seemingly unobtainable dolly, her high notes are so stratospheric that almost only dogs can hear. That Gillian Keith is strangely attractive as this painted banshee is quite worrying.
As Punch carves his way through the rest of the cast, the nightmare folds back on itself and the tables are turned. Forced into submission, Shore finishes as a stripped pagliaccio, bald and wiped clean of make-up. The laughter stops as the mood too evolves into something more real and sinister with the all-too authentic hanging of the hangman. The tables keep turning.
Giles Cadle’s circus arena, a canopy of coloured lights and stripey decoration, is perfect for projecting the whole messy business straight into the audience’s lap. Following last month’s Lost Highway, The Young Vic proves again the perfect venue for bringing immediacy to opera and breaking down the barriers caused by more traditional staging.
What a contrast between this and Birtwistle’s most recent opera, The Minotaur currently running at the Royal Opera House. In the course of a few days this week, one can experience the scope of 40 years of operatic writing by our foremost living composer. His mature style may charm and seduce but there’s nothing like the visceral thrill, the cosh and carry, of this early masterpiece.