Britten/Auden Opera Proves to be Excellent Ensemble Piece

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Britten Paul Bunyan: Soloists, Chorus & Orchestra of English Touring Opera/Philip Sunderland. Linbury Theatre, Royal Opera House, London, 17.02.2014 (CC)

Voice of Paul Bunyan  – Damian Lewis
Johnny Inkslinger –  Mark Wilde
Jen Jenson / Crony – Maciek O’Shea
Hel Helson –  Wyn Pencarreg
Hot Biscuit Slim – Ashley Catling
Tiny – Caryl Hughes
Pete Petersen – Simon Gfeller
Cross Crosshauslen – Matthew Sprange
Western Union Boy  – Mark R. J. Ward
Sam Sharkey/Andy Anderson – Stuart Haycock
Ben Benny – Piotr Lempa
Fido –  Abigail Kelly
John Shears – Adam Tunnicliffe

The opportunity to hear Britten’s early piece Paul Bunyan (with libretto by Auden) is not to be passed up easily. Difficult to categorise musically (Is it an operetta or a musical?) it is nonetheless full of excellently crafted, often delightful and sometimes touching music. There are passages that could only be by Benjamin Britten, others where he still has to find his style. The composer was dissatisfied with the piece, though, after the unsuccessful premiere in 1941. He then withdrew it until it resurfaced with some revisions in 1976.

The piece is unusual in that the titular character is not actually on stage, ever. Instead, he speaks from offstage, via amplification. Here, it was a recorded Damien Lewis who was the “projection of the collective consciousness of early Americans”, as director Liam Steel puts it in the programme note. It is the smaller roles that (literally) take centre-stage. In many ways, it is an ensemble piece; and therefore the sort of piece eminently suited to proper opera companies of the like of ETO and, for that matter, ENO. ETO’s decision to stage it, then, was sound. The production has the orchestra in this venue at the back of the stage, intermittently visible in part; in front is Anna Fleischle’s set, a large structure that acts as a communal barn which houses the protagonists’ sleeping quarters. This lumberjacks’ sleeping quarters is, as Bunyan speaks it against the most lovely, lush sustained strings and a piping flute, “America, but not yet”. No small surprise that interspersed with the Britten fingerprints are more-than-hints of Copland. The result is that big choral moments vie with guitar-accompanied American country music in a delicious mish-mash that Britten somehow manages to coerce into a whole.

The conductor, Philip Henderson, conducted well, inspiring his players to their best. Comparing what was heard at the Linbury with the Plymouth Music Series recording (currently part of a 13 CD set of Britten opera issued by Erato), it was the recording that conveyed more of a sense of the piece as one entity. That said, there is a freshness to the ETO production that ensures the evening is undeniably enjoyable.

There is no denying, either, the slickness of Britten’s writing. The idea of a group of Swedish lumberjacks in America is delicious, and its realisation here was just as delightful, not to mention hilarious, as anyone could hope. Auden’s libretto works hand-in-hand with Britten’s music. At least we are spared Monty Python camp for the lumberjacks (who, after all, are more than OK): campness informs instead the cooks, whose song about soup (how many of those are there in opera?) was a thing of joy. The spirit of lightness and comedy was perfectly projected. The choral numbers, so vital to the success of this score, were delivered with exemplary gusto.

This being a score that showcases a company rather than individuals, it seems almost cruel to pick out singers for special praise, but it must be done. The part of Johnny Inkslinger was brilliantly and confidently taken by Mark Wilde; the lovers Tiny and Slim (Caryl Hughes and Ashley Catling respectively) made a simply beautiful pairing, with Hughes particularly successful both in terms of freshness of voice and simply living her part. Wyn Pencarreg’s Hal Hanson was another triumph of theatricality marrying vocal expertise.

This was more than an opportunity to see a rarity; rather, the present production proves that Paul Bunyan can stand on its own feet as a mightily entertaining evening. In some ways the piece has it all, from slapstick to touching aria, all held together with expert choral writing. The performance had real vim, but also real affection as well as tenderness. Go see.

Colin Clarke