Saturday 8 September 2018

Paul Bunyan at Wilton's Music Hall, or, Shall America Fail?

Regular readers will know how strong an advocate of this musical theatre piece I am. It remains outside the regular repertoire, and, as a result for me each new production carries burdens. On the one hand it's always a source of excitement and anticipation to think of hearing the work live again. On the other, I worry that directors will unnecessarily mess about with it, that it won't convince others who don't know it that it's a fine piece, that I'll be disappointed. Reading the reviews it was clear a good many critics retain doubts, but I thought this was a fantastic show, one of the best pieces of work I've seen from ENO in some time.

As with the ETO production (you can read my review here) a few years back there's a make do tone to the production, which fits the piece well. Although there are some challenges involved in the Wilton's venue, the general ambience seems a good fit. There's a few hints of furniture in the main playing area, a very cleverly conceived site office level with the balcony, and otherwise props and fine characterisations do the work of bringing this world to life. Often, and clearly partly to accommodate the forces required in the limited space, chorus spread out to surround the audience. Although the sound is sometimes a bit overwhelming, it is also powerfully moving in great choral moments like the climax of the Prelude or "Lost, lost is the world I knew." It also meant, that at least where I was in the stalls, the individual choral lines came out with a striking clarity - particularly in the Prologue. Holding it all together under these conditions must require enormous focus from everybody concerned, and the fact that pretty uniformly they do is highly impressive, with particular credit due to Matthew Kofi Waldren on the podium. Altogether Waldren and his Chorus and Orchestra give a powerful, dramatic, moving reading of this wonderful score.

The production, full of wit in the first half, gradually darkens in the second and often found fresh readings of a work I thought I knew backwards. When I read the Ballad Singer had been replaced by a trio I had my doubts, but in fact it's a trio of the Geese who move from mocking the Trees who don't want to be cut down in the Prologue to becoming Bunyan's chief site managers through the rest of the show. It's a clever way to integrate the Ballad Interludes more fully into the drama, and it enables new interpretations of them - in particular finding added point in the account of marital troubles in the Second Interlude. When you add in the nice moment of the Geese guzzling doughnuts while everybody else is complaining about Sam and Benny's awful cooking, and their final fate at the Christmas party it all amounts to a superbly executed idea on the part of director Jamie Manton. He also makes clever nods to the score's links to American popular song with Moppet, Poppet and Fido as a trio of radio backing singers crooning into their tails, and the cowboy Slim gradually morphing into Elvis. I didn't like the latter so much, but you couldn't argue that it isn't a fair interpretation in a show which has strong links to US popular culture and is also concerned with the variety of the United States emerging from this frontier start. Manton also finds a fresh vision of Britten and Auden's haunting concluding Litany. Here it becomes a moment of personal crisis - we do not leave hopeful about Tiny and Slim's marriage, or Inkslinger's future. There's also more of a suggestion here of flaws in Bunyan than I recall from previous productions - has he made the right decision to desert them? As with the ETO production I found myself challenged by this darker reading. I prefer to be more hopeful about the futures of these characters and about the future of the States. But again, it can't be argued that it isn't a legitimate, thought provoking interpretation.

Just occasionally in Act Two I thought the production fell a little short. Zambello's staging of Act 2's mock funeral for the Royal Opera House remains the best. There's an overuse of the blue fridges which are to some degree symbolising Babe the Blue Cow, but have to do duty in too many other respects for that wholly to work. But even here there's interesting ideas at play - a creeping industrialisation - some kind of fish processing plant seems to be emerging - with again disturbing but not overdone implications for America's future.

Singing-acting standards among the many solo parts are also high, including some very strong contributions from members of the ENO Chorus. They're too many to list them all but particular mention is due to Elgan Llyr Thomas's Inkslinger, Rowan Pierce's Tiny, Fflur Wyn's Fido (the moments as she watches Inkslinger just before his life story catch at the heart) and Claire Mitcher/Rebecca Stockland/Susanna-Tudor Thomas's Geese/Narrators. The only notes I would give are that William Morgan's Slim though excellently characterised occasionally needed a little more vocal weight, and David Newman's Western Union Boy sounded a bit hurried - though I'm not sure the direction was wholly helpful here - but it should be said both were still perfectly solid performances, and Newman also formed part of an excellent Quartet of the Defeated.

In advance I'd hoped that Simon Russell Beale, an actor regular readers will know I hugely admire, would be the solution to the vexed problem of the Voice of Paul Bunyan after Damian Lewis's unconvincing performance for ETO. Russell Beale is better but still not as good Pop Wagner in the classic Plymouth Music Series recording. Part of the problem I still think is that the part is pre-recorded - I understand the desire to have a name in the part, and pre-recording must make this easier, but I do think future productions should strongly consider the benefit of having the actor present. It's not such a problem in Bunyan's longer speeches - though even here I wasn't always convinced by Russell Beale's reading in comparison to Wagner's - but it hinders the small segments of dialogue (though the moving interchange with Inkslinger at the end of Act 1 worked beautifully). But the other surprise to me was that Russell Beale, who I've often known to deliver lines in a way that was almost overpoweringly moving (most recently in the NT's stunning Lehman Trilogy) seemed to flatten the emotion here. Maybe there's a directorial idea at work regarding an unemotional, distant godlike character but personally I think it works against the text. There's a warmth to Pop Wagner's delivery which gives an emotional depth to Auden's words that they need and which Russell Beale doesn't quite find.

But overall this was a pretty marvellous afternoon. I don't think I've ever felt the big choruses so much as precursors to the same moments in Peter Grimes or Billy Budd. Again and again as I heard the familiar marriages of music and text - "Once in a while the moon turns blue", "Lost, lost is the world I knew and I am lost, dear heart, in you" - this time in this extraordinary enveloping aural experience I felt shivers run down my back and tears came to my eyes. And it may be that the bleak vision for these characters and their country is right. As an Americanist, who has always thought that it was a beautiful dream, I hope not, but as we face our current moment it is sadly a not unjustified interpretation.

The run ended this evening, but this is unquestionably a production deserving further life. The Aldeburgh Festival recently gave such life to another magnificent Britten staging, Opera North's overpowering Billy Budd. I hope their spies have popped down to London to take a look at this. One might finally note that years ago now, the former Artistic Director of ENO John Berry proclaimed it the house of Britten. Bunyan (and at least one other) never surfaced in his time, but this production, belatedly but magnificently, is a triumphant fulfillment of a crucial part of that claim.

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