American Hero and Trojan King Tour Britain Together

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Britten, Paul Bunyan; Tippett, King Priam: English Touring Opera /Philip Sunderland, Michael Rosewell (conductors), Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham, 1/2.4.2014 (RJ)

king priam
Pic credit (King Priam) Robert Workman

While touring opera companies tend to play safe and stick to popular fare when they venture into the provinces, English Touring has recognised that there are plenty of sophisticated and informed music lovers out there who welcome something challenging and different. Their faith was rewarded by the sizeable audiences who turned out to see two 20th century works which have been shamefully neglected.

Paul Bunyan celebrates a legendary hero of the American frontier (reputedly 200 feet tall) and the spirit of optimism which underpinned the evolution of the USA. Described as a choral operetta it has plenty of well executed choral numbers from a cast of strapping chaps who look just like lumberjacks – apart from the two weedy looking cooks whose culinary expertise is restricted to beans and soup. The stage direction is first class with plenty of snappy choreography: the axe dancing looked perilous, but no injuries occurred during the performance I attended!

There is an attractive breeziness about Liam Steel’s production and although this is essentially an ensemble piece certain individuals stand out, such as Wyn Pencarreg as the imposing Hel Helson who foolishly challenges Paul Bunyan, Caryl Hughes as Bunyan’s unexpectedly diminutive daughter who after her mother’s death finds romance at the loggers’ camp, and Mark Wilde as the guitar strumming balladeer and bookkeeper whose dreams come true when he is recruited by Hollywood to advise on a film about lumberjacks.

While I enjoyed the performance, I had mixed feelings about Paul Bunyan itself. Britten’s music was fine – varied and lyrical, with some particularly atmospheric interludes for orchestra, directed with distinction by Philip Sutherland, and some arias which came from the realms of opera. But if the theme of the opera was serious – that “America is what you choose to make it” – the treatment is distinctly tongue in cheek. It is a wry (and smug?) commentary on the American way of life by two outsiders (Britten and Auden). The world would have to wait two years for a more positive endorsement of the American dream in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma.

For a cast list and more extensive comments by Colin Clarke please see here  

If I have reservations about Paul Bunyan, I have none at all about King Priam. Director James Conway promised this would be a life-changing experience – and so it proved to be in a gripping production which portrays the devastating impact of war. Tippett’s opera was first performed at an arts festival for the reconsecration of Coventry Cathedral which also featured the premiere of Britten’s War Requiem. Both are immensely powerful works, and it seems strange that Priam is so seldom performed.

We see the proud and majestic King Priam, magnificently portrayed by Roderick Earle, broken down by events and reduced to despair. Each of the characters is etched clearly and compassionately: Priam’s brave eldest son Hector (Grant Doyle), the womanising Paris (Nicholas Sharratt), and the three grandes dames – Andromache (Camilla Roberts), Hecuba (Laure Meloy) and the flighty Helen (Niamh Kelly) in what resembled a flapper outfit. The relationship between Achilles (Charne Rochford) and Patroclus (Piotr Lempa) was sensitively portrayed to the accompaniment of a single guitar.

Everything in the production worked wonderfully, not least Anna Fleischle’s authentic looking designs; the headdresses for the participants in the beauty contest were particularly striking,  Michael Rosewall and his musicians gave an excellent account of Tippett’s score with its fascinating orchestral effects – and the words (by Tippett) could always be heard loud and clear. With so many lives ruined by war and its inexorable cycle of killing and revenge Tippett’s pacifism finds expression in the words of Hermes: “Melt our hearts; renew our love. Reconciliation is the only way out of further tragedy.

This is a production I cannot praise too highly. For Mark Berry’s more detailed review and cast list see here.    (Note thar Caryl Hughes sings the boy Priam on tour).

ETO will be performing either Paul Bunyan, King Priam or both in Leicester, Sheffield, York, Canterbury, Norwich, Crawley, Warwick, Exeter, Durham and Cambridge during April and May 2014.

 Roger Jones

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