Paul Bunyan – review

Linbury Studio, London

English Touring Opera's fine performance can't entirely mask the self-conscious quality of Britten's early 'operetta'

For general purposes, Britten's operatic career began with Peter Grimes, whose hugely successful launch at Sadler's Wells in 1945 marked an epoch. However, Grimes had a precursor, composed four years earlier on a different continent and in a quite different style.

Ultimately intended by its creators (its librettist was WH Auden) for Broadway, Paul Bunyan ran instead for a week at Columbia University in New York in 1941. It marked a highpoint in the professional relationship between the two artists, but also more or less the endpoint. Had it succeeded, who knows how Britten's career might have turned out? As it was, he returned to England the following year and his operetta, as he styled it, was put away until he finally allowed it to be revived at the very end of his life.

Since then, it has enjoyed a number of productions, including a couple during last year's Britten centenary celebrations. Liam Steel's staging for English Touring Opera makes a good case for its viability, without entirely being able to paper over cracks in the piece itself. Both text and music have a self-conscious quality that drifts towards sententiousness in the darker second half, when the American dream starts to go wrong almost before it has started.

Bunyan is a mythical figure from North American folklore, a giant logger who brings together a community of lumberjacks to clear away the virgin forests for cultivation and civilisation. As such, the benign, physically improbable creation is represented by an offstage speaking voice – here conveyed in the thoughtful, soft-grained recorded tones of Damian Lewis. Steel presents Bunyan's tales as re-enacted by a traditional rural community, a device that works well: the piece is stuffed full of small roles that require good acting skills and good musicianship rather than great operatic voices, and is in effect Britten's nearest approach to the musical.

Anna Fleischle's set is a large barn-like structure, with the orchestra hidden behind it, and her costumes evoke the cast's singing birds and animals as imaginatively as the melting-pot residue of random humanity that washes up in Bunyan's camp. This is an ensemble piece with no weak links in the vital cast, but there are memorable standouts from Mark Wilde's astute Johnny Inkslinger, Ashley Catling's gentle Hot Biscuit Slim, Caryl Hughes's tender Tiny and Wyn Pencarreg's lofty Hel Helson, while Philip Sunderland's conducting displays Britten's inventive score to its best advantage.

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Contributor

George Hall

The GuardianTramp

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