America and Britten patch it up

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He’s a lumberjack, and he’s OK. Benjamin Britten’s Paul Bunyan has remained stubbornly stuck on the fringes of the repertoire since its disastrous 1941 premiere in New York, but each disinterment confirms the work’s intrinsic value.

Britten himself, always sensitive to criticism and lastingly distressed by the catastrophic failure of his first work of music theatre, only returned to it in the mid 1970s. Concert performances, a recording, and the 1976 Aldeburgh staging followed, and Britten’s faith in the work was restored.

One of the important instigators of the reconciliation was Steuart Bedford, who worked with Britten on the first revival and is still busy reviving the neglected lumberjack for the rest of the world. Last weekend saw the Austrian premiere of Paul Bunyan, a mere 30 years after Erich Fried had translated W. H. Auden’s mercurially brilliant libretto into German, at Bregenz’s unassuming Kornmarkt Theater.

Bunyan remains a musical oddity. Britten wrote it for Broadway, at the time a highly politicized theatrical context. Auden’s libretto is a witty, savvy summons to a brand of American patriotism so savvy and self-critical that it holds up after all that the intervening decades have done to the country. Opening night audiences missed the point completely, perhaps because of an abstruse staging, perhaps also because Britten’s blend of Brechtian epic theatre, music-hall levity and hauntingly reflective modernism was a little beyond them.

Today, it’s possible to appreciate in Bunyan all the echoes of what was to come in Britten’s operas, along with the work’s beguiling combination of youthful exuberance, formal experimentation, stylistic eclecticism and charm. Fried’s translation
is still excellent, and Nicholas Broadhurst’s new production is fast-paced and fun.

Bregenz pours the money it makes from its popular floating stage productions laudably back into the loving airings of neglected gems. This Bunyan, a co-production with Vienna’s Volksoper, the Lucerne Theatre and Oper North, amply rewards the effort. Nicholas Broadhurst has worked together with the Brothers Quay to make a staging that looks and feels like a musical without neglecting the work’s many subtleties. The Quays have provided giant sets that play with the similarity between the rings inside tree trunks and modern day barcodes, Timo Dentler and Okarina Peter’s costumes leave the lumberjacks in checked shirts but turn the wild geese into Pan-Am hostesses, the cats into cheerleaders, and Fido the dog into a little boxer. It’s all good, clean fun, pert yet innocent, entertaining but clever.

A big young cast throws itself into the piece with energetic competence. Helmut Kruass provides the sonorous off-stage voice of Paul Bunyan, Gillian Keith is his dulcet-toned daughter, Juan Carlos Falcon the dashing cook who wins her heart, Roberto Gionfriddo the intellectual bookkeeper Johnny Inkslinger, who does not. Martin Dablander’s witty Western Union Boy wins most of the laughs, Markus Pol’s guitar-strumming narrator suffers awful memory lapses. Steuart Bedford displays a sadistic streak by only saving Pol when it is far too late, but in every other respect conducts an evening that is taut, enchanting and effective.

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