Britten's Paul Bunyan - English Touring Opera

The British composer's early operetta exploring the American Dream is flawed but a lot of fun, says Rebecca Franks

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Britten's Paul Bunyan - English Touring Opera
Britten's Paul Bunyan

Before Britten's Peter Grimes, there was Paul Bunyan. The 27-year-old composer wrote this operetta – his first complete mature stage work – while he was living in the USA. Set in an American logging camp, a hearty, wholesome community full of hopeful pioneers striving to create a 'New World', it’s hard to imagine anything further away from the dark torments and bleak sea landscapes of the following, far more famous work. Paul Bunyan was panned by the critics at its premiere. But, while it might not make anything of the lasting impression that Peter Grimes does, this rarely performed piece is worth staging for its appealing tunes and wit, as well as its novelty value, as English Touring Opera’s lively production proved.

WH Auden's libretto explores the tale of Paul Bunyan, the great American folklore hero – a giant lumberjack born under a blue moon. We never see the omniscient Bunyan – he is represented on stage by a stars-and-stripes hat and scarf perched atop, for the most part, a ladder, while his voice booms from off-stage – a pre-recorded Damian Lewis (who is excellent here), famous for his role in Homeland, a TV series depicting modern assaults on the American Dream.

The action takes place in a communal wooden cabin, complete with towering bunkbeds - the set is realistically done by designer Anna Fleischle and well lit by Guy Hoare, though it creates a perhaps inappropriate Billy Budd-like claustrophobia. Soon a host of amusing characters come knocking at the door, from the Swedish lumberjacks to the comic duo of cooks and the intellectual book-keeper. Stuart Haycock and Piotr Lempa shine in their gastronomic double act as Sam (who only makes soup) and Ben (beans) while Mark Wilde turns in a beautifully lyrical performance as the accountant brought up on the Messiah, Cezanne, Keats and Tolstoy. There’s a slight love story, which sees Tiny, Bunyan’s daughter (a rich-voiced and glowing Caryl Hughes) and Hot Biscuit Slim (a lighter, gentler Ashley Catling) fall for each other (pictured right).

Yet it’s the chorus – really a group of solo singers – that carries the show. Written with semi-professionals in mind, there’s plenty of stirring unison singing, but already there’s the suggestion of the ease and effectiveness with which Britten would use the chorus in Peter Grimes. And ETO’s good casting pays off, as there’s a wonderful variety of character and timbre as solo voices pop out of the ensemble, and take on different characters in the narrative interludes. They all seem to be having a lot of fun, as does the alert orchestra conducted by Philip Sunderland.

The score is a delicious cocktail of American flavours, from the Country & Western guitar accompaniment of the Ballad-Interludes, to the hints of bittersweet African-American spirituals, and the slick optimism of a Broadway show. And, in director Liam Steele's ending, there's a hint of that Homeland America: the departing characters are handed items including a gun, a hang-man's noose, and a Guantanamo-Bay-style prison uniform. A pointed ending, as Bunyan's final words resonate: 'America is what you do … America is what you choose to make it.'

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