Alongside Tippett’s King Priam, English Touring Opera has chosen another rarity for its spring season – Britten’s Paul Bunyan. They make an interesting pairing: both are anti-war, both draw on national myths, but in terms of approach they could hardly be more different – the Tippett is an unforgiving, modernist drama, the Britten a youthful stab at popular entertainment.
Although Paul Bunyan was a failure in New York in 1941, it does not need to be so today. On the surface, at least, it makes for a fun evening and audiences should respond when ETO takes it on tour as part of an ambitious programme that includes not only the Tippett, but also Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte and two operas for children.
Holed up in the US at the outbreak of war, Britten and W.H. Auden wanted to deliver a heavily politicised hymn to US freedom. Whether Americans wanted to hear this from a couple of young, leftwing, pacifist, émigré Brits is another question, but today Paul Bunyan can be seen more simply as a period cocktail laced with Auden’s intellectually sharp wit.
The story shows the building of an early American community and Liam Steel’s production sets the opera among the camaraderie of a country barn with bunk beds for all, highly realistic in Anna Fleischle’s set and beautifully lit. Here come archetypes of US society – the tough Swedish logger Hel Helson, sung by Wyn Pencarreg, a comic duo of cooks, amusingly played by Stuart Haycock and Piotr Lempa, and the artistic Johnny Inkslinger, surely a portrait of Auden himself, lyrically sung by Mark Wilde.
There are cameos for all and ETO’s company of mostly young singers performs with enthusiasm. Damian Lewis is the celebrity recorded voice of Paul Bunyan, the mythic founder of America we never see, and Philip Sutherland, the conductor, captures the youthful brilliance of Britten’s music. A feeling of wholesome warmth pervades the production, which is perhaps not what the creators intended. But in the closing minutes a question mark is raised when Johnny Inkslinger reveals a selection of icons for modern America – a gun, an Abu Ghraib prisoner’s uniform, a copy of Playboy, a hangman’s noose. Not such a happy ending after all.