Punch and Judy, Young Vic, London
Atalanta, Britten Theatre, London
Acis and Galatea, Wilton's Music Hall, London

Mr and Mrs Punch and the Molotov cocktail: Britten was said to hate Birtwistle's violent opera, but, 40 years on, its wit and skill stand out. Just don't look for a moral centre

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

Arts & Entertainment
TV

Arts & Entertainment
Customers browse through Vinyl Junkies record shop in Berwick Street, Soho, London
music

Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
ComedyCollier was once told there were "too many women" on bill
Arts & Entertainment
Ian Anderson, the leader of British rock band Jethro Tull, (right) and British guitar player Martin Barre (left) perform on stage
music

VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
film

Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway
theatre

Review: Of Mice and Men

Arts & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp
art

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day
film

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London
TV

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

    Jury still out on Pellegrini

    Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit