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.

Two main challenges do face someone staging this work: the episodic nature of the narrative, and the disembodied nature of the title role. Liam Steel's decision to stage the work as a piece of homespun theatre in a pioneer cabin is a largely effective solution to those problems. The darker moments are especially well done: the Mocking of Helson and the Blues Quartet of the Defeated. There's also some finely judged little character moments – Slim kissing Tiny goodnight at the close of Act One, the Inkslinger-Fido moment before his song. My major criticism would be that in places you really need the staging to be absolutely still and allow the audience to focus on Bunyan's words – the Good Night that closes Act One and Bunyan's Farewell towards the end of Act Two contain some of Auden's most striking phrases and both were obscured by too much mistaken movement on stage.

There are two ways in which Steel plays with the work. The first is the reimagining of Fido the Dog (the fine Abigail Kelly) as a much abused slave. It's a really clever and haunting idea. The second is the provocative final scene. My initial reaction to Inkslinger pulling items like a Guantanamo jumpsuit and a noose out of a basket as the Animals intone some of Auden's most biting lines “From a Pressure Group that says I am the Constitution...From those who say Patriotism and mean Persecution...From a tolerance that is really inertia and disillusion...Save animals and men” was irritation – the feeling that those lines don't need the addition of those signals, that it was doing the obvious. But somehow as the Litany continued my irritation turned to a feeling of being troubled, compelled to consider these unpleasant bequests. I suspect that on some level, while I've always admired the work for its criticism, as someone who spends their professional life studying the United States I perhaps still want to celebrate rather than condemn. I've always found the Litany an absolutely haunting moment, but in this staging it caught me more powerfully than I had expected.

Musically this is a very solid performance by a highly committed company. Caryl Hughes's Tiny and the already mentioned Abigail Kelly as Fido are the finest individual performances. Adrian Dwyer, just taking over the demanding role of Inkslinger, is very creditable, but in places just sounds on the edge of his comfort zone. The weakest link, unfortunately, is Damian Lewis as the Voice of Paul Bunyan. It's odd how difficult it clearly is to find someone who can do this. James Lawless on the classic Plymouth Music Series recording is the only person I've heard who gets the rhythm of Auden's lines right. Kenneth Cranham didn't manage it at the Royal Opera House and Damian Lewis doesn't here. I don't dispute that it's a challenge, but depending on the place warmth, authority, passion were all lacking. The solo roles in the Blues Quartet, the Lumberjacks chorus and the Mocking of Hel Helson are well done. The cats and the terrible cooks duets are both nicely characterised. Elsewhere some singers are just a bit too quiet – I would have liked more weight from both Ashley Catling's Slim and Matt J R Ward's Western Union Boy. Diction isn't always quite as spot on as would be desirable. The choral moments, some of the most powerful and moving sections of the piece, are powerfully delivered. The ETO Orchestra deliver a fine account of Britten's score, but Philip Sutherland on the podium just lacks that last bit of precision. Pit and stage didn't always have that top class absolute togetherness that they ought to. I also had some quibbles with Sutherland's tempi which I thought were too fast in places – for example in the Cook's Duet where he rushed the advertisments.

This is not a performance without its issues, but, as I said at the start, overall I found it a powerful and moving one. It is also an important one. This is a significant work in Britten's output. I think it stands on its own merit, and, a little late granted, it's fitting that the Britten centenary year should have seen this major new production. There is a caveat to that. The Royal Opera House's Zambello production is a fine one and would well merit a revival. The current management of English National Opera once described itself as the House of Britten but the company has never staged this work. It's a piece that is particularly suited to concert performance where the disembodied Bunyan ceases to be an issue but in a centenary year replete with such performances of other Britten operas this one was completely, and mistakenly, ignored. Once again English Touring Opera have stepped up to a challenge ducked by our other major companies. I strongly urge you to get a ticket for one of the remaining performances. Who knows when any of us will have another chance to hear it live?

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