United Kingdom Britten, Paul Bunyan (Production Premiere): Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Welsh National Youth Opera / Alice Farnham (conductor), Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, 23.8.2013 (GPu)
Voice of Paul Bunyan: Stephen Fry
Johnny Inkslinger: Elgan Llyr Thomas
Tiny: Vanessa Bowers
Slim: Ross Scanlon
Hel Nelson: Lukasz Karauda
Western Union Boy: Joseph Gorvett
Director: Martin Constantine
Conductor: Alice Farnham
Designer: Cai Dyfan
Lighting Designer: Peter Harrison
Video Designer: Adam Young
Movement Director: Jem Treays
‘Crossover’ is a term which generally and very reasonably makes most lovers of any particular genre of music cringe with unpleasant anticipation. But, while the phenomenon of crossover is almost universally regrettable, what one might call cross-fertilisation is a very different and altogether more rewarding matter. One genre learning from other(s) is the very stuff of artistic change and development. Shakespeare’s ‘mongrel’ plays, mixing materials and ideas from dramatic genres others have preferred to keep apart are a prime example of cross-fertilisation. Voltaire complained that Shakespeare didn’t know the difference between comedy and tragedy and broke the ‘rules’ of each. But most readers and viewers have found Hamlet and King Lear wiser and more all-embracing accounts of human life than those offered within the generic ‘purity’ of Eriphyle or Zaire. In its own much smaller fashion Paul Bunyan is a work whose character (like it or dislike it) is an obvious product of cross-fertilisation. Out of opera and operetta, the Broadway musical, and with a dash of the blues, American folk song and ballad, Britten and Auden produced a work which is very much sui generis. It isn’t an altogether satisfying work and its generic ambiguity goes with a certain ambiguity of attitude towards its subject – which, loosely put, is the USA, America’s myth of its origins and its dream of its future. At times clearly critical, at other times seeming more or less unironically celebratory, everywhere fascinated in a way that perhaps only non-natives can be, Paul Bunyan is a complex and puzzling work.
One of the pleasures of this enjoyable production, directed by Martin Constantine, was that it allowed the work to retain its contradictions and resisted the temptation to impose a single clear reading on it. Allowed to speak for itself (however confusingly) Paul Bunyan emerges as a work of genuine power and almost excessive subtlety.
Paul Bunyan is a figure of legendary status initially created in the folklore of the American lumberjacks, embodying ides of the pioneer spirit, of the creation of both social communities (using the logs produced) and agricultural land (on the sites of the woodlands cleared. Though there were ‘literary’ accounts from the first decade of the twentieth century the giant figure of Bunyan first came to real prominence when William Laughead made him the central figure in an advertising campaign for the Red River Lumber Company during the years of the First World War. Thereafter he became a staple figure of American popular culture – so that, for example, he is said to be an acquaintance of Bugs Bunney in the 1953 cartoon Lumber Jack-Rabbit (making a brief appearance at the beginning) and, more recently, a version of his story is told in a 2001 episode of The Simpsons, Simpsons Tall Tales, with Homer Simpson taking the role of Bunyan.
The Bunyan of Britten and Auden’s work is an off-stage role, Bunyan’s voice instructing, warning, advising and punishing the merely human characters. In this production the role was taken by Stephen Fry whose pre-recorded performance was projected onto a screen in relentless large-scale facial close-up. It wasn’t easy to rid oneself of irrelevant associations ‘faced’ with this enormous image of Fry, and his American accent left something to be desired, being variable and inconsistent. The on-stage cast (much more extensive than the very selective list given above) played and sang with winning ebullience (and equally various American accents). The director used the largely effective framing device of a small boy watching (presumably in 1941) a TV with shaky reception, seeing a series of advertisements for archetypally American products, before the opera itself began, growing out of that world of advertisements (or at least conditioned by that world) just as Bunyan did. There was humour and intelligence in the way that the ‘story’ was presented, a humour that didn’t distract from some of the serious underlying themes.
Energy was the key note, in movement and song, but there were moments of subtlety and depth too. Vanessa Bowers lamented the death of her mother very sweetly. As Johnny Inkslinger, the intellectual drawn into the business world, Elgan Llyr Thomas gave a performance of high intelligence in a well-controlled and purposeful light tenor voice. A singer of whom we shall, I think, hear more. The chorus sound was exemplary, boosted as it was by the presence of the South Wales based choir Only Boys Aloud. All concerned in this production should be congratulated on doing something like justice to a difficult work and performing to standards which reflected in many respects those expected of a more experienced (and professional) company.