Was Benjamin Britten really so horrified by Punch and Judy that he walked out of the premiere? Sources close to those who worked on the original production of Harrison Birtwistle's first opera pooh-pooh this oft-repeated story. Britten was ill that day, they say. He commissioned it, they say. And if you were an ambitious young composer with a significant premiere in the 1968 Aldeburgh Festival, which rumour would you rather have in circulation? That your work enjoyed the approval of the musical establishment? Or that it was so radical, so violent, so grotesque that England's leading composer couldn't bear to listen to it?
Forty years on, in a spin-savvy world, it is tempting to conclude that industry gossip gave a welcome boost to Birtwistle's early career. But listening to Punch and Judy as conducted by Edward Gardner in Daniel Kramer's production for English National Opera, what registers more clearly than the audacity of the instrumentation is a tradition of word-painting that stretches back from Birtwistle to Britten to Purcell to Lawes to Dowland and Byrd. Consciously or unconsciously, there are echoes of the Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, the Te Deum from The Turn of the Screw, the florid repetitions of Restoration mad-songs, the dying falls of lute songs. What is missing is any moral dimension. Where Britten blurred the line between good and evil, Birtwistle and his librettist Stephen Pruslin, in keeping with the spirit of 1968, threw a Molotov cocktail at it.
Set in a circus ring, with a big-top of coloured light-bulbs and an on-stage harmonie band of flutes, oboes, clarinets, saxophone, bassoons and brass in jaunty pork-pie hats, Kramer's staging brings the audience uncomfortably close to each smear of grease paint, each crumpled corpse. The acting is strong, the singing and playing superb, the lighting (by Peter Mumford) excellent, the design (by Giles Cadle) muddled. Punch (Andrew Shore); Judy (Lucy Schaufer); the Choregos (Ashley Holland); the Lawyer (Graham Clark); and the Doctor (Graeme Broadbent); are Victorian archetypes. Yet the dancers appear to have wandered in from Clockwork Orange – The Musical, while Pretty Polly (Gillian Keith) is the young Shirley Temple sold into a strip-joint. The humanity in Schaufer's performance only underscores the lack of humanity in the other characters. Don't blame the singers. You can gasp at Birtwistle's switchback coloratura and staccato mood-swings. You can admire the confident strut of Pruslin's lyrics, the icy glamour of harp, percussion and strings, the tight, rough wit of the woodwind writing. But there is no heart in Punch and Judy.
So to Handel, sole rival to Birtwistle in the number of new productions this month. Christopher Cowell's modern-dress staging of Atalanta for the London Handel Festival offered three stand-out performances – from Madeleine Pierard (Meleagro/ Tirsi), Stephanie Lewis (Irene), and Susannah Hurrell (Irene's silent side-kick) – and some beautifully observed ensemble work in an unrecognisably idealised British seaside resort. Did it work? No. One half of the audience was baffled by Cowell's arcade-game analogue for the Act I boar hunt – I spent most of the interval explaining what a Wii is – while the other half knew that middle-class sk8ter bois and pram-faced girls with lacquered forelocks, Croydon facelifts and velour tracksuits don't even look at each other, much less speak, hang out, share a takeaway, fall in love, and take three hours to admit it. That aside, I loved it.
Attractive as Lawrence Cummings's musical direction of Atalanta was, Christian Curnyn's account of Acis and Galatea for Transition Opera was simply breathtaking. With two violins, a cello, a bass violin, oboes doubling on recorder, soloists singing the choruses, exquisite obbligato solos from Catherine Martin and Katharina Spreckelsen, and a single theorbo to complement Curnyn's harpishord, this was the loveliest Acis I've heard.
Director Netia Jones added a homoerotic red herring to the slender plot by dressing Damon (Nathan Vale) as one of a trio of Jean Paul Gaultier sailors, with kaleidoscopic video images of daisies, a cute conceit with a 1970s Chopper, and some Keith Warneresque body parts for the gory dinner prepared by Polyphemus (Jonathan Brown). As the sea nymph Galatea, Sinéad Campbell smouldered in her 1930s bathing dress, while Nicholas Watts' adorably guileless, blushing boy-scout hero sang with ravishing musicality and a tone of unforced, ardent beauty.
"Punch and Judy" (0871 472 0600) final performance 3pm today