BIRTWISTLE Punch and Judy
It is very good news that Etcetera have licensed one of the most exciting of the late lamented Decca Headline series, devoted to major twentieth-century works. Birtwistle's opera was composed in the mid 1960s, and since this recording first appeared we have had the remarkable Opera Factory production of the work, directed by David Freeman, seen on stage and television. Does the 1980 cast seem rather genteel compared with Freeman's uncompromisingly forceful team of singing actors? As Punch, Stephen Roberts is certainly less consistently menacing and 'over the top' in vocal demeanour than Opera Factory's Omar Ebrahim. But Roberts remains a very satisfying interpreter of a part which is far from uniformly aggressive in character, and in which a kind of crazy vulnerability offsets the ritual violence. I was impressed anew by the general excellence of the singers on this set, with a typically spectacular contribution (especially above the stave) from Phyllis Bryn-Julson.
In the light of Birtwistle's finest later works especially the opera The Mask of Orpheus and such pieces as Secret Theatre and Earth Dances, Punch and Judy can seem relatively anonymous in style, at least in those places which offer the kind of brittle, fragmented textures found in many composers at that time. Yet these are only moments, and as a whole the opera loses none of its powerful and sustained impact when compared with Birtwistle's own more mature compositions. If anything, its startling primitivisms stand out more vividly, while its not inconsiderable moments of reflection and lyricism acquire an enhanced poignancy. The performance (a 1980