Paul Bunyan at Wilton’s

Paul Bunyan, ENO at Wilton’s

As the poet Stephen Spender lamented, Britain never got the great opera which should have resulted from that seemingly dream pairing, Benjamin Britten and WH Auden. The nearest they came to producing that work – and it wasn’t near at all – was the ‘choral operetta’ they were commissioned to write during their American sojourn in 1941, ostensibly for a high-school cast, but in their dreams (which didn’t materialise) for Broadway. This was Paul Bunyan, whose plot Britten envisaged as chronicling the progress of ‘the pioneers of the whole world, the men who opened up new country, who conquered without killing, who were the noblest kind of adventurers’. It flopped in its first outing in 1941, with Auden blaming his own libretto for letting ‘some very lovely music’ go down the drain; it got its European stage premiere three decades later, but to this day it is still little known.

Paul Bunyan was the giant lumberjack of American folklore, and Auden conceived him as being on the scale of the giants in Wagner’s Ring; in this telling, which moves from untamed nature to twentieth-century culture, he would lead his team of loggers on a mythical journey of self-discovery. His size precluded his physical portrayal on stage: he would be simply be a voice (here played by Simon Russell Beale). It was imaginative of English National Opera to frame this rugged story in the rough Victorian context of Wilton’s Music Hall: in the event, Jamie Manton’s production, with Matthew Kofi Waldren’s music direction, felt like a good fit.

The piece is basically a series of cabaret numbers, and the music is tuneful, with accompaniments reflecting Britten’s instinctive mastery of delicately applied instrumental colour. Taking their cue from the anodyne jokeyness of the libretto, the cast camp it up – well, with lyrics like ‘We are lumberjacks/ with saw and axe’, what else could they do? There are pre-echoes of Oklahoma, and the framing ballads are sung in country and western style – the music is very much of its time. Just one song – for the philosopher/book-keeper Johnny Inkslinger, a self-portrait of Auden – has a chromatic sophistication; everything else is simple, easily-singable stuff.

Although it’s directed as an ensemble work, three singers stand out – Elgan Llyr Thomas as Inkslinger, William Morgan’s Slim, and Rowan Pierce’s Tiny, who is the girl the loggers all protest to lust after (not terribly convincingly, given how camp they are). No masterpiece, then, but good clean fun – and the show is a sell-out.

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