Friday 21 February 2014

Britten Paul Bunyan ETO Linbury London review

The English Touring Opera's Paul Bunyan.makes an excellent case for Britten's most misunderstood opera. When it premiered in 1941,  audiences couldn't figure it out. If anything, modern audiences are even less likely to get Paul Bunyan, accustomed as we are to gung-ho feelgood depictions of Americana, such as Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma!, Aaron Copland's  Appalachian Spring, cowboy movies and TV. "From homespun culture manufactured in cities, Save us, animals and men"  HERE is a link to Claire Seymour's exceptionally penetrating review, in Opera Today. She wrote The Operas of Benjamin Britten, tye standard reference.

Paul Bunyan is a heroic myth, not reality. Fundamentally the piece isn't about Americana at all, and attempts to present it as such only damage its reputation.  Paul Bunyan needs to be understood on its own terms and in the context of Britten's creative development. Fortunately, the ETO production minimizes kitsch and maximizes meaning.  A professional cast is used, lifting standards way above well-meaning amateur earnestness. Conducted by Philip Sunderland, the score is revealed in all its gawky glory but without mawkish easy laughs. Liam Steel directs, using a set designed by Anna Flieschle where the  human qualities of the opera come into greater focus. The "Trees" in the Prologue were shown as simple planks of wood. The Blues Singers aren't camped up, nor are the hard-working labourers in the camp trivialized by being dressed up to look like animals.

Sunderland also doesn't indulge in cute for its own sake. Here, we could hear snatches from Peter Grimes in embryo, such as the slithering snake-like bassoons, and the way lines stretch along the range of voices in the chorus.  The all-important "wood dove"theme was played with suitable menace. Just as Siegfried is led into the forest by a wood dove, we  in the audience are being beguiled, led into a forest of dreams. Britten employed this Siegfried/ Wood Dove imagery in his The Sword and the Stone (1939), written for children. (read more here)  In Paul Bunyan, he resurrects it for grown-ups, with even more punch.
This being a "numbers musical" with a big cast, the kind of character development we might expect in normal opera doesn't really happen. But there is enough innate pathos of roles like Hel Helson and Johnny Inkslinger to give the opera depth. Superlative singing and acting from Wyn Pencarreg and Mark Wilde respectively, expanding the parts with utterly convincing dignity. We feel Henson's pain as he's taunted by nightmares mocking him for being less than a Nordic Hero. Henson doesn't articulate, but Pencarreg can express much more than is in the text. Helson is a counterpart to Paul Bunyan (Damien Lewis) both of them men from a different, more primeval era. Tiny (Caryl Hughes),  Hot Biscuit Slim (Ashley Catling) will move to Manhattan and Johnny Inkslinger to Hollywood, but Paul, Babe the Blue Ox (imaginitively depicted by a man under a blue blanket), and Helson don't belong in a polluted, commercialized world.

All the numerous cameo parts and choruses were deftly sung and blocked, keeping the pace lively even in the Second Act where the inventiveness in the music starts to pall  Britten had written "popular music" such as the Cabaret Songs (to poems by Auden) so satirical pastiche came easily to him. The many numbers like the Lumberjacks Chorus, The Quartet of Swedes, the Cook's Duet and Tiny's Lament rattle off cheerily but in such profusion the second half of the operetta starts to feel forced. For all its faults, Britten learned a lot from Paul Bunyan. The Christmas Party, for example, suggests the feast in Albert Herring, a much bleaker opera than most realize (read more here). The clumsiness of some of the musical writing in Paul Bunyan is in fact artistic licence. Parts of the piece sound corny because what they depict is corniness. Perhaps Britten is demonstrating the truth in Auden's phrase "From the accidental beauty of singalongs, Save Us, animals and men".

If Paul Bunyan isn't a hymn to kitsch Americana, what is it? In the opening chorus, the singers sing that the Revolution has turned to rain. Management/staff relations in the logging camp are better organized than in many real life businesses. Britten and Auden were well aware of Brechtian  dialectics and the political music theatre of their period, and this has some effect on the stylized, almost agit prop narrative. However,  Paul  Bunyan springs from a much deeper groundswell of pain and disillusion. Britten, Pears and Auden left Europe, hoping to find a new world uncontaminated by the strife of 1930's Europe. Britten's sojourn in America was comfortable, but he picked up on the darker sides of the America Dream. In Paul Bunyan, ancient forests are felled, the wood used for houses and railway tracks. "Progress" moves further west, and with it, conformity, gentrification and hypocrisy. "From patriotism turned to persecution, Save Us, animals and men". Peter Grimes and Billy Budd describe the fate of men who fall foul of bigots and mobs. Britten, Auden and Pears were well aware how J Edgar Hoover was hunting down "subversives". McCarthy's witch hunts would have come as no surprise.  Like Peter Grimes, Paul Bunyan and Babe are too big for their boots in a world where pettiness rules.

Paul Bunyan is a stylized vision of  "a Forest, full of Innocent Beasts. There are none who blush at the memory of an Ancient Farm, None who hide beneath dyed fabrics a Malicious Art ".

"It is a Spring morning without benefit of young persons. It is a sky that has never registered weeping or rebellion.............It is America. But Not Yet. 

WANTED: Disturbers of Public Order,. men without foresight or fear 

WANTED:  Energetic Madmen, those who have Thought Themselves a body large enough to devour their dreams 

WANTED: The Lost, those Indestructibles whom Defeat can never Change. Poets of the Bottle, Clergymen of a Ridiculous Gospel, Actors who should have been Engineers, and Lawyers who should have been Sea Captains. Saints of Circumstance, Desperados, and Unsuccessful Wanderers and all who can hear The Invitation of The Earth. America, youngest of her daughters, awaits the Barbarians in marriage"

photos Copyright Richard Hubert Smith

Cast List : Conductor Philip Sunderland, Paul Bunyan Damian Lewis, Jonny Inkslinger Mark Wilde, Hel Helson Wyn Pencarreg, Tiny Caryl Hughes, Hot Biscuit Slim Ashley Catling, Sam Sharkey / Andy Anderson Stuart Haycock, Ben Benny Piotr Lempa, Fido Abigail Kelly, Moppet Amy J Payne, Poppet / Moon Emma Watkinson, Western Union Boy Matt R J Ward, John Shears / Blues Singer Adam Tunnicliffe, Cross Crosshaulson / Farmer Matthew Sprange, Blues Singer / Crony Johnny Herford, Blues Singer / Crony Henry Manning, Jen Jenson / Crony Maciek O’Shea, Pete Peterson Simon Gfeller, Goose / Wind Hannah Sawle, Goose Lorna Bridge, Goose / Heron Annabel Mountford, Blues Singer / Squirrel, Helen Johnson Beetle Susan Moore, Young Tree / Boy Emily-Jane Thomas

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