22 Feb 2014
Benjamin Britten: Paul Bunyan
In a 1960 BBC interview, Britten explained to Lord Harewood: ‘I was very much influenced by [W.H.] Auden
Twelve years after Opera Holland Park's first production of Francesco Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur, the opera made a welcome return.
The Italianate cloister setting at Iford chimes neatly with Monteverdi’s penultimate opera The Return of Ulysses, as the setting cannot but bring to mind those early days of the musical genre. The world of commercial public opera had only just dawned with the opening of the Teatro San Cassiano in Venice in 1637 and for the first time opera became open to all who could afford a ticket, rather than beholden to the patronage of generous princes. Monteverdi took full advantage of the new stage and at the age of 73 brought all his experience of more than 30 years of opera-writing since his ground-breaking L’Orfeo (what a pity we have lost all those works) to the creation of two of his greatest pieces, Ulysses and then his final masterpiece, Poppea.
Once again, we find ourselves thanking an unrepresentable being for Welsh National Opera’s commitment to its mission. It is a sad state of affairs when a season that includes both Boulevard Solitude and Moses und Aron is considered exceptional, but it is - and is all the more so when one contrasts such seriousness of purpose with the endless revivals of La traviata which, Die Frau ohne Schatten notwithstanding, seem to occupy so much of the Royal Opera’s effort. That said, if the Royal Opera has not undertaken what would be only its second ever staging of Schoenberg’s masterpiece - the first and last was in 1965, long before most of us were born! - then at least it has engaged in a very welcome ‘WNO at the Royal Opera House’ relationship, in which we in London shall have the opportunity to see some of the fruits of the more adventurous company’s endeavours.
If you don’t have the means to get to the Rossini festival in Pesaro, you would do just as well to come to Indianola, Iowa, where Des Moines Metro Opera festival has devised a heady production of Le Comte Ory that is as long on belly laughs as it is on musical fireworks.
Composed during just a few weeks of the summer of 1926, Janáček’s Slavonic-text Glagolitic Mass was first performed in Brno in December 1927. During the rehearsals for the premiere - just 3 for the orchestra and one 3-hour rehearsal for the whole ensemble - the composer made many changes, and such alterations continued so that by the time of the only other performance during Janáček’s lifetime, in Prague in April 1928, many of the instrumental (especially brass) lines had been doubled, complex rhythmic patterns had been ‘ironed-out’ (the Kyrie was originally in 5/4 time), a passage for 3 off-stage clarinets had been cut along with music for 3 sets of pedal timpani, and choral passages were also excised.
With the conclusion of the ROH 2013-14 season on Saturday evening - John Copley’s 40-year old production of La Bohème bringing down the summer curtain - the sun pouring through the gleaming windows of the Floral Hall was a welcome invitation to enjoy a final treat. The Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Showcase offered singers whom we have admired in minor and supporting roles during the past year the opportunity to step into the spotlight.
Many words have already been spent - not all of them on musical matters - on Richard Jones’s Glyndebourne production of Der Rosenkavalier, which last night was transported to the Royal Albert Hall. This was the first time at the Proms that Richard Strauss’s most popular opera had been heard in its entirety and, despite losing two of its principals in transit from Sussex to SW1, this semi-staged performance offered little to fault and much to admire.
Twenty years ago stage director Christopher Alden introduced Rossini’s then forgotten comedy to Southern California audiences in a production that is still remembered. In Aix Alden has revisited this complex work that many critics now consider Rossini’s greatest comedy.
The BBC Proms 2014 season began with Sir Edward Elgars The Kingdom (1903-6). It was a good start to the season,which commemorates the start of the First World War. From that perspective Sir Andrew Davis's The Kingdom moved me deeply.
One is unlikely to come across a cast of Figaro principals much better than this today, and the virtues of this performance indeed proved to be primarily vocal.
That’s A Winter’s Journey and A Night of Mourning for metteurs-en-scène William Kentridge (South Africa) and Katie Mitchell (Great Britain), completing the clean sweep of English language stage directors for the Aix Festival productions this year.
Assured elegance, care and thoughtfulness characterised tenor James Gilchrist’s performance of Schubert’s Schwanengesang at the Wigmore Hall, the cycles’ two poets framing a compelling interpretation of Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte.
‘Music for a while shall all your cares beguile.’ Dryden’s words have never seemed as apt as at the conclusion of this wonderful sequence of improvisations on Purcell’s songs and arias, interspersed with instrumental chaconnes and toccatas, by L’Arpeggiata.
The acoustic of the gigantic Théâtre Antique Romain at Orange cannot but astonish its nine thousand spectators, the nearly one hundred meter breadth of the its proscenium inspires awe. There was excited anticipation for this performance of Verdi’s first masterpiece.
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has once again staked claim to being the summer festival “of choice” in the US, not least of all for having mounted another superlative world premiere.
In past years the operas of the Aix Festival that took place in the Grand Théâtre de Provence began at 8 pm. The Magic Flute began at 7 pm, or would have had not the infamous intermittents (seasonal theatrical employees) demanded to speak to the audience.
High drama in Aix. Three scenarios in conflict — those of G.F. Handel, Richard Jones and the intermittents (disgruntled seasonal theatrical employees). Make that four — mother nature.
The programme declared that ‘music, water and night’ was the connecting thread running through this diverse collection of songs, performed by soprano Lucy Crowe and pianist Anna Tilbrook, but in fact there was little need to seek a unifying element for these eclectic works allowed Crowe to demonstrate her expressive range — and offered the audience the opportunity to hear some interesting rarities.
‘Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars.
It is not often that concept, mood, music and place coincide perfectly. On the first night of Opera della Luna’s La Fille du Regiment at Iford Opera in Wiltshire, England we arrived with doubts (rather large doubts it should be admitted)as to whether Donizetti’s “naive and vulgar” romp of militarism and proto-feminism, peopled with hordes of gun-toting soldiers and praying peasants, could hardly be contained, surely, inside Iford’s tiny cloister?
In a 1960 BBC interview, Britten explained to Lord Harewood: ‘I was very much influenced by [W.H.] Auden
He went to America, I think it was ‘38, early ‘39, and I went soon after. I think it wouldn’t be too much oversimplifying the situation to say that many of us young people at the time felt that Europe was more or less finished I went to America and felt that I would make my future there.’ (Letters from a Life, vol.1, eds. Mitchell and Reed, p.619).
Premiered in May 1941 in the Brander Matthews Hall at Columbia University, Paul Bunyan — the ‘choral operetta’ that Britten and Auden created on the quintessentially American theme of the legend of the eponymous pioneering lumberjack — might be seen as a naïve attempt to beguile: an offering intended to confirm their artistic credentials for American citizenship. But it also hinted at the challenges ahead for a nation built upon a Dream, as its people learn that they must balance individual choice with the need to tolerate ‘difference’ and protect the ‘outsider’.
Piotr Lempa (Ben Benny) and Stuart Haycock (Sam Sharkey)
It is a challenge to make something coherent of a work which offers both an uplifting parable and symbolic inferences; both light-hearted Broadway gags and more biting Thirties’ socialism. Britten’s score is an appealing medley of deft pastiches — blues quartet, country and western ballad, jazz lament, Gilbert and Sullivan comedy — each idiom following the next in quick succession, with the odd extravagant Donizettian-duet thrown into the mix; but the narrative thread is rather weak and the allegory at times ambiguous.
For this ETO production, director Liam Steel and set/costume designer Anna Fleischle opted to keep things fairly simple, housing all the action in an orthodox Loggers’ Cabin, and moving swiftly between the multifarious numbers in the manner of a slick Broadway musical. Even the Western Union Boy (tenor Matt R. J. Ward) was keen to get into the act, excitedly executing a polished table-top routine that would not have shamed Fred Astaire.
Singing the limpid, swinging motif that is one of the few uniting elements of the score, the unison chorus seemed a little slow to get going; but maybe this is the point — for the soporific way of life of the ‘Old Trees’ (represented by tall timbers of wood), before man’s arrival on earth, is overturned in this opening ensemble by the ambition and energy of the impatient ‘Young Trees’ (shorter burgeoning planks). In full voice by the end of the number, the ETO chorus was impressively resonant, foreshadowing an even more resplendent pinnacle, ‘O great day of discovery’, in Act 2.
Steel has decided to capitalise upon the fact that, while there is not much of a narrative thread, there are lots of terrific individual musical numbers in which Britten shows off his prowess as a master of pastiche and parody. The choreography was slick, particularly given the limits of the stage space; this is a genuine ‘company’ work, with the soloists coming forth from the chorus, and the ensemble numbers were the highpoint. Especially notable were the lumberjacks’ chorus in Act 1 in Act 1 — which utilised many a hackneyed Broadway gag to cheerful effect — the Quartet of Swedes, and the loggers’ hyperbolic, competitive rivalry for Tiny’s attention.
One of the challenges for a director is how to present the oversized eponymous hero who never actually appears on stage. Paul Bunyan is less a ‘character’ than an embodiment of man’s glorious spirit of conquest; but he is a static element in the drama and presents difficulties with regard to the integration of his projected, disembodied voice with the drama seen on stage. Steel had an ingenuous solution: as the tale of his birth and life was told by the collective gathering, Bunyan’s growth — from ‘six inches’, he gained ‘346 pounds every week’ and ‘grew so fast, by the time he was eight/ He was at tall as the Empire State’ — was illustrated by the ascending top hat of Uncle Sam which, bedecked with red and blue band, was lifted ever higher by successive members of the company, a metaphor for Bunyan and a personification of the emergent nation. Subsequently, the awe-struck loggers addressed their champion with gazes striving upwards, a rickety ladder adorned with a bedraggled Star-Spangled Banner pointing to a distant pinnacle of aspiration. Bunyan’s words were intoned sonorously but without sententiousness by Damian Lewis.
Tenor Mark Wilde skilfully conveyed the reflective introspection of Johnny Inkslinger, the brooding ‘book keeper’, using a tender voice and expressive nuance most sensitively. In his big Act 1 number, ‘Inkslinger’s Song’, in which the troubled outsider reflects on the irreconcilable gap between the simplicity of nature and the complexity of human culture, Wilde’s tone and projection grew in a controlled fashion as the melody expanded from recitative-like declamation to arioso outpouring. Although he was at times a little pushed at the top, Wilde created a convincingly rounded character, a man capable of complexity of feeling. Seated on a bunk, alone in the cabin, in Inkslinger’s ‘Regret’, his despair in the face of the conflict between hope and misfortune was poignant in its simplicity of articulation.
Elsewhere there was indulgent exuberance. Crooning an Italianate ‘Cooks’ duet’, bass Piotr Lempa (Ben Benny) and tenor Stuart Haycock (Sam Sharkey) were deliciously camp. They made sure that we were aware that Auden’s slick satire on vulgarity of an advertising culture which plays upon our insecurities — ‘The Best People are crazy about soups! Beans are all the rage among the Higher Income Groups!’ — is just as apt now as in the 1930s.
The animal roles, cast for female voices, provide a welcome complement to the rugged male voices that predominate, and Abigail Kelly, as the dog Fido, and Amy J. Payne and Emma Watkinson, as the felines Moppet and Poppet, were both alluring of voice and edgy of character: when feisty Fido joined the courtesan cats in a piquant denouncement of social ills in the Act 2 ‘Litany’, their appeal ‘Save animals and men’, made an impact. As the loafer-flapping Geese, a form of life half-way between the trees and mankind, Lorna Bridge, Annabel Mountford and Hannah Sawle also sang with vocal precision and dramatic impact.
Many of these characters in this nascent nature are not only searching for their future paths but also for their inner selves. Tenor Ashley Catling revealed a thoughtfulness hidden by the logger’s brawn in Slim’s Song, as he lamented, ‘I must hunt my shadow/ And the self I lack’. Baritone Wyn Pencarreg was splendid as the bewildered foreman Hel Helson, a dull dunderhead who is bewildered by life’s turns and tribulations. Pencarreg blindly blustered in ‘The Mocking of Hel Helson’, brutally asserting ‘versions’ of his self — ‘Helson the Brave, the Fair, the Wise ’ — but also winning our sympathy.
Helsons’s violent, futile assault on Bunyan is juxtaposed with the love duet of Slim and Tiny, the latter role sung with sweet clarity and warmth by mezzo soprano Caryl Hughes. Steel placed the frolicking lovers and the felled logger on top and lower bunk respectively, surrounded by a chorus by turns mournful then scornful — a delightful comic juxtaposition.
One detail which failed to convince was the sharing of the Narrator’s ballads between Inkslinger and the company. It’s true that by allowing the members of the collective to take successive lines of the guitar-accompanied ballads, Steel allowed them to tell their own tale; but, the balladeer can lend a useful ironic distance and serve as narrative link between the essentially stand-alone numbers. And, Inkslinger himself is at one remove from the collective, a man of words and thoughts, reflecting on his actions and motives, achievements and future paths, much like Auden himself at this time; he is decidedly not one of the herd.
In the rather dry acoustic of the Linbury Studio Theatre, Britten’s economical woodwind-based orchestration provided a fitting commentary on the vocal numbers; this was especially so in Inskslinger’s numbers. The ETO orchestra was placed behind the back wall of the cabin, but the woodwind pierced through crisp and clear, although some of the string resonance was sacrificed. Conductor Philip Sunderland kept things moving along with many a well-judged tempo: the jazz-inspired ‘Quartet of the Defeated’ was aptly funereal.
There are dark undertones in this operetta, though: ‘Inkslinger’s Song’ concludes with an outpouring of the social conscience of the 1930s: ‘Oh, but where are the beautiful places/ Where what you begin you complete,/ Where the joy shine out of men’ faces,/ And all get sufficient to eat?’. For all its virtues, Steel’s rather homespun reading didn’t always capture this aspect. Indeed, Paul Bunyan’s ‘Goodnight’ which closes Act 1 (a passage which was added by Britten during revisions to the score in 1974) put me in mind of the 1970s television show The Waltons — as darkness fell and the lapping dog quietened, I half expected to hear ‘G’night John-Boy’ echoing from the loggers’ bunks!
Mark Wilde (Johnny Inkslinger)
One of the side-effects of the almost relentlessly up-beat feeling was that moments of stillness and import did not always make their full impact. One of the most powerful musico-dramatic moments comes in the opening scene when ‘the whole pattern of life is altered’ and ‘the moon turns blue’: the logger who enthusiastically slapped blue paint on the cog-wheel perched high up the cabin wall raised a wry titter, but I’m not sure that this really captured the romance of Britten’s ethereal ‘gamelan’ colours and harmonies.
Similarly, at the end, Bunyan’s final words to the emergent nation were somewhat lost, as the party-goers began clearing up the debris of the celebration. Perhaps Steel was making a subtle point: Bunyan says, ‘America is what you do/ America is I and you, /America is what you choose to make it’, but these Americans did not listen and failed to recognise their responsibilities, individual and collective. In the closing moments, Steel attempted to add some political depth to the production. If the action had already suggested that the American Dream was flawed at the start, then the future certainly did not look good for these loggers, judging by the contents of the wicker basket left by Bunyan for the loggers, like a prophesy to be resignedly accepted or actively resisted. Bent intently, and to the incredulity of the onlookers, Inkslinger withdrew first a pistol, then a lurid Guantanamo jumpsuit, followed by an overly large Bible (presaging the influence of the Christian Right?), a shabby copy of Playboy, some fast food wrappers, a lap-top, a periwig and noose. This chain of emblems of the institutions of state and finance spoke powerfully. The final image of black soprano Abigail Kelly, draped with a crumpled Stars and Stripes, was a poignant one.
English Touring Opera’s productions of King Priam, Paul Bunyan and The Magic Flute continue at the Linbury Studio Theatre until 22nd February and then tour until 31st May. See www.englishtouringopera.org.uk for further details.
Cast and production information:
Paul Bunyan, Damian Lewis; Jonny Inkslinger, Mark Wilde; Hel Helson, Wyn Pencarreg; Tiny, Caryl Hughes; Hot Biscuit Slim, Ashley Catling; Sam Sharkey/Andy Anderson, Stuart Haycock; Ben Benny, Piotr Lempa; Fido, Abigail Kelly; Moppet, Amy J Payne; Poppet/Moon, Emma Watkinson; Western Union Boy, Matt R J Ward; John Shears/Blues Singer, Adam Tunnicliffe; Cross Crosshaulson/Farmer Matthew Sprange; Blues Singer/Crony, Johnny Herford; Blues Singer/Crony, Henry Manning; Jen Jenson/Crony, Maciek O’Shea; Pete Peterson, Simon Gfeller; Goose/Wind, Hannah Sawle; Goose, Lorna Bridge; Goose/Heron, Annabel Mountford; Blues Singer/Squirrel, Helen Johnson; Beetle, Susan Moore; Young Tree/Boy, Emily-Jane Thomas; Conductor, Philip Sunderland; Director, Liam Steel; Designer, Anna Fleischle; Lighting Designer, Guy Hoare; Assistant Director, Dafydd Hall Williams. Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, Wednesday 19th February 2014.