Some years ago Harrison Birtwistle's opera Punch and Judy (1967) was produced for television. German artist George Baselitz did sets and costumes, and (taking cues from Birtwistle's wild music) he made the characters huge -- really huge -- marionettes, some 20 feet in size. Like the Punch and Judy of the popular British puppet shows, they remained dolls, but now they were horribly exaggerated: faces and features smattered with violently incisive pigment splotches, limbs and genitals garishly enlarged and ponderous. The sight offered a giddy gaggle of contradictions between the grotesque and the immaculately controlled (fulsome, heaving bodies caught in wire, stick and string) and between the new and old -- an electric abstract expressionism confused with the archaic savagery of a Greek satyr play. Things unremarkable in isolation and proper scope had suffered exaggeration, rigor, and fusion, and were now wonderfully sick, irreducibly strange.
Harrison Birtwistle must surely have liked the production. The music, tone, and action of his first large-scale music theater work certainly hold similar qualities in droves -- qualities that Birtwistle has long since cultivated into stylistic hallmarks. The music to Punch and Judy is hysterically intense, its textures and registers lacerating, its lines and harmonies stuttering and brazen. But the music also emanates a stern coldness; all this sound and fury is tempered by Birtwistle's delight in calculation, and especially the locking of "hot" music into "cool" repeating structures.
This penchant for formalism reveals itself in the opera's aggressive "number" style, with its strict sequence of passion chorales, toccatas, proclamations, etc. Librettist Stephen Pruslin has remarked that the two collaborators wanted to create an opera in quotes, something gleaming with contentlessness -- but an emptiness which serves as a repository for all previous operas: a "source opera."
Of course, the idea that all operas have their retrospective "source" in the grisly Grand Guignol games of the old Punch and Judy show was pretty audacious, and surely savored. The treatment of the material is a masterly mix of the infantile and the gruesome, Mother Goose and Freddy Krueger, embraced in a kind of allegorical cloth both wise and blank. Why does Punch murder everyone in sight, albeit with imaginative verve? Why does he pursue Pretty Polly so faithfully? Why on earth does he, as "Punch Triumphans," win her in the end, and what is this conclusion to "teach" us?
Though the music is dire and vicious, and the libretto often bitterly direct, the opera stands poker-faced amidst such questions. And in this sense it executes the two collaborators' wishes -- that, like all myth, the work be both "immediately comprehensible, yet susceptible to interpretation," effective yet ultimately transparent. This iconoclastic opera is now a twentieth-century icon -- testimony to its success.