Saturday 26 April 2014

English Touring Opera's Paul Bunyan, or An Important Conclusion to the Britten Centenary

Regular readers and twitter followers will know that Paul Bunyan is a work really close to my heart. In consequence I've been keenly looking forward to this new production from English Touring Opera (the first from one of our main companies since the Royal Opera House production in  1997/9). There is always a danger when you love a work and anticipate a new staging of disappointment. This performance was not flawless but the marvellous qualities of Britten and Auden's neglected gem shone through, and it passed that other test of making me think anew about certain aspects.

Paul Bunyan is an important work in Britten's output, his first major musical theatre work. I've always been a bit puzzled, from a musical point of view, that it seems to need special pleading. The richness of melody, the word setting, the punch of some of the choral writing (from the moon turning blue at the beginning, through to the Litany at the end) all of these things are worth multiple hearings. Clearly some people don't get on with Auden's libretto, even my parents were lukewarm about it this time round. Personally I enjoy the clever wordplay, which I think Britten manages very successfully, and I also find many sections powerfully moving, even though I know them off by heart. The moon turning blue, the brooding reflections on the future of America and Inkslinger's haunting little love song are particular highlights. I suspect also that the work suffers from being seen as not quite musical and not quite opera and therefore suspected by afficionados of both genres. There's no denying its a hybrid work, but again I find that a strength not a weakness. Finally as an American historian by profession with a particular interest in British representations of the United States I find it a fascinating work.

Sunday 6 April 2014

Versailles at the Donmar, or, This Lecture will be in Three Acts

In case you haven't noticed, it's the anniversary of the start of the First World War this year. This, I assume was the starting point for the commissioning of this new play by Peter Gill, even though it deals with the peace rather than the war. It is of course also possible that Peter Gill had already decided he wanted to write a big play on the First World War and the Versailles Peace. Unfortunately, wherever responsibility is laid the fact remains that in creating this new work crucial elements needed for a good play have been sadly omitted. The result apart from a couple of good scenes in Act Three and fleeting moments elsewhere is dull.

Gill's cardinal sin is that of sinking his various characters under the weight of the many historical points he wants to make. In consequence, almost none of them (even those who don't spend most of the play delivering long, tiresome monologues which everybody else inexplicably listens to with insufficient interruption) come across as real, convincingly human figures but as mouthpieces for authorial opinions. This might not be so bad if Gill actually succeeded in telling us anything new, or showing anything from a new angle by this method, but he does not.