Paul Bunyan, English Touring Opera, ETO, Linbury Studio, ROH, February 2014Posted on 18 February 2014
Paul Bunyan was a legendary folk hero in nineteenth century America, a lumberjack of mythical size and strength. The myth may have started with a French Canadian, Paul Bunyon, who led fellow loggers in a rebellion against British troops in 1837, but whatever the origin, stories told around campfires enhanced his size to gigantic proportions, portrayed in statues that stand today.
In 1939 W H Auden and Benjamin Britten had each moved to America, and Auden created a libretto about this legendary hero for Britten’s first opera. I say opera, though the term “choral operetta” is used in the programme. Do not be put off. Operetta it may be, but as a mid-twentieth century work it resonates with the operatic creations of Kurt Weill, and note that both he and Britten produced a Beggar’s Opera, following the one by John Gay in the seventeenth century.
Four years after Paul Bunyan’s first performance in 1941, Britten followed it with Peter Grimes, one of the great operas of the twentieth century, pushing Bunyan very much into the shade. That makes it all the more fascinating, and English Touring Opera have done a superb job of bringing it to stage in this production by Liam Steel. Like the first production in a theatre on Broadway, Paul Bunyan himself is heard only as a disembodied voice. But unlike recent Youth Opera productions where the stage has been rather wide open, Steel has given us the cramped quarters in which lumberjacks lived, with set design and costumes by Anna Fleischle, atmospherically lit by Guy Hoare. It is wonderful.
The youthful vigour of the music, the enthusiasm of the young people in the lumberjack camp and the willingness to toil for a better future in adverse conditions all epitomise the spirit that made America great. Such was what Auden and Britten wanted to convey to the audience, though it received a poor reception at its first performance. Towards the end of his life, Britten reconstituted it for a BBC broadcast early in 1976, and it was staged at Snape Maltings that summer, just six months before his death.
In 1976 Peter Pears sang the role of Johnny Inkslinger, an accountant who joins the group because he needs to earn his crust, yet ends up seeing the start of a new life when he receives a telegram from Hollywood. Mark Wilde gave a fine portrayal of Inkslinger, and I particularly liked Caryl Hughes as Tiny, a character that only acquired a singing role in the 1941 rehearsals when it turned out the actress could sing. But this is not about individual cast members — the whole presentation is what counts and it was terrific.
The words of Auden take us into a New World of creative destruction where life can unfold in miraculous ways, and as Bunyan says towards the end, “America is what you choose to make it”. His voice, a fount of limitless understanding and wisdom, brilliantly spoken by Damian Lewis, is one of joys of this production, along with the effervescent singing, and Philip Sunderland’s sure touch with the orchestra.
Performances at the Linbury Studio continue on Feb 19, 20, 21, after which it tours to: Hall for Cornwall, Truro, 11th Mar; Lighthouse, Poole, 14th Mar; Wolverhampton Grand Theatre, 18th Mar; Snape Maltings Concert Hall, 28th Mar; Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham, 1st Apr; Curve, Leicester, 8th Apr; York Theatre Royal, 16th Apr; Norwich Theatre Royal, 25th Apr; The Hawth, Crawley, 6th May; Warwick Arts Centre, 8th May; Exeter Northcott Theatre, 16th May; Cambridge Arts Theatre, 28th May.