Opera critics like to compare Britten’s Paul Bunyan to a Broadway musical – especially if they don’t know many Broadway musicals. An earthy American folk-tale, retold as a New Deal metaphor by a pair of English public school aesthetes, it’s exactly as awkward as it sounds. The programme note hopefully compared W.H. Auden’s clunking libretto to the lyrics of Cole Porter and Ira Gershwin. But there’s barely a couplet in it that Larry Hart would have deemed fit to offer to Richard Rodgers, even after his fourth whiskey sour.
Two things can rescue Paul Bunyan: the brilliant, wide-eyed inspiration of the 27-year old Britten’s music – and a staging and performance to match. Happily, that’s exactly what it got in Liam Steel’s joyous, playful new production for English Touring Opera. It does the only thing possible: takes the piece at face value, with a beautifully-detailed log cabin set, and equally detailed but wholly unaffected acting from every member of the ETO chorus. Bunyan is an ensemble piece, or it’s nothing, and the choral singing was thrillingly ardent.
And when Britten and Auden allowed believable characters to emerge from the crowd, they were already fully-drawn: Mark Wilde’s decent, determined Johnny Inkslinger, Wyn Pencarreg’s big, puzzled Hel Helson and Caryl Hughes as a demure but warm-blooded Tiny. (Her lament, quietly and eloquently delivered, was a musical high-point of the first act). Philip Sunderland, conducting, brought out every little start and shiver of Britten’s gloriously fresh score – the orchestra were clearly enjoying themselves. Worth seeing? When done this well, yes. Worth going to see? That too.