There are so many reasons making it easy to understand why Britten withdrew his early folk-opera ‘Paul Bunyan’, not allowing it to see the light of day again until very close to his death in 1976.
It’s very much an apprentice piece (in fact it was written for student performance in New York in 1941), laying out a bewildering mishmash of styles, from oratorio, via jazz, romantic love-duetting, cabaret, through to Grand Ol’ Opry), weighed down by the earnest clarity of W.H. Auden’s anachronistic libretto. The whole effect of this “choral operetta”, as Britten himself described it, is that of a patriotic pageant, and would work much better as a radio production -- particularly as the central character, Bunyan himself, as tall as the Empire State Building, appears throughout only as a disembodied speaking voice. It is amazing to think that the masterly ‘Peter Grimes’ would be given to the world only four years later.
All that said, the students of Birmingham University achieved a heartwarming triumph as they launched this year’s Summer Festival of Music with a genuinely moving presentation of ‘Paul Bunyan’, deftly directed by Mark Nathan and with a pert, sassy orchestra under the baton of Jack Lovell.
This is above all an ensemble structure, and the teamwork of the lively chorus was a joy to behold, with well-balanced vocal lines in the Barber’s forward acoustic. Some wonderful solos emerged, among them the endearing hillbilly Narrator of Nick Charlesworth (doubling up as a Western Union Boy), Brock Roberts’ well-drawn Johnny Inkslinger, Alex Aldren’s ringingly resonant Slim, and Lauren Morris’s attractive Tiny, looking as though she’d strayed out of ‘Oklakoma!’.
And the contribution of Alex Parker as Bunyan himself must not be underestimated, his offstage voice commanding, authoritative, his unseen presence mesmerising both the company and audience alike.