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
The Wigmore Hall complete Schubert song series continued with a recital by Georg Nigl and Andreas Staier. Staier's a pioneer, promoting the use of fortepiano in Schubert song. In Schubert's time, modern concert pianos didn't exist. Schubert and his contemporaries would have been familiar with a lighter, brighter sound. Over the last 30 years, we've come to better understand Schubert and his world through the insights Staier has given us. His many performances, frequently with Christoph Prégardien at the Wigmore Hall, have always been highlights.
Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 project has reached the year 1767. Two years ago, the company embarked upon an epic, 27-year exploration of the music written by Mozart and his contemporaries exactly 250 years previously. The series will incorporate 250th anniversary performances of all Mozart’s important compositions and artistic director Ian Page tells us that as 1767 ‘was the year in which Mozart started to write more substantial works - opera, oratorio, concertos this will be the first year of MOZART 250 in which Mozart’s own music dominates the programme’.
‘[T]hey moderated or increased their voices, loud or soft, heavy or light according to the demands of the piece they were singing; now slowing, breaking of sometimes with a gentle sigh, now singing long passages legato or detached, now groups, now leaps, now with long trills, now with short, or again, with sweet running passages sung softly, to which one sometimes heard an echo answer unexpectedly. They accompanied the music and the sentiment with appropriate facial expressions, glances and gestures, with no awkward movements of the mouth or hands or body which might not express the feelings of the song. They made the words clear in such a way that one could hear even the last syllable of every word, which was never interrupted or suppressed by passages or other embellishments.’
An exceptional Wagner Der fliegende Holländer, so challenging that, at first, it seems shocking. But Kasper Holten's new production, currently at the Finnish National Opera, is also exceptionally intelligent.
A welcome addition to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s roster was its recent production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte.
800 years ago, every book was a precious treasure - ‘written on skin’. In George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s 2012 opera, Written on Skin, modern-day archivists search for one such artefact: a legendary 12th-century illustrated vanity project, commissioned by an unnamed Protector to record and celebrate his power.
It was like a “Date Night” at Staatsoper unter den Linden with its return of Eike Gramss’ 2012 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. While I entered the Schiller Theater, the many young couples venturing to the opera together, and emerging afterwards all lovey-dovey and moved by Puccini’s melodramatic romance, encouraged me to think more positively about the future of opera.
For the Late Night concert after the Saturday series, fifteen Berliners backed up Barbara Hannigan in yet another adventurous collaboration on a modern rarity with Simon Rattle. I was completely unfamiliar with the French composer, but the performance tonight made me fall in love with Gérard Grisey’s sensually disintegrating soundscape Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, or “Fours Songs to cross the Threshold”.
One of the things I love about the Philharmonie in Berlin, is the normalcy of musical excellence week after week. Very few venues can pull off with such illuminating star wattage. Michael Schade, Anne Schwanewilms, and Barbara Hannigan performed in two concerts with two larger-than-life conductors Thielemann and Rattle. We were taken on three thrilling adventures.
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s original and superbly cast production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens has provided the musical public with a treasured opportunity to appreciate one of the great operatic achievements of the nineteenth century.
The Little Opera Company opened its 21st season by championing its own, as it presented the world premiere of Winnipeg composer Neil Weisensel’s Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock.
Now in its 31st year, the 2016 Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square has offered sixteen concerts performed by diverse ensembles, among them: the choirs of King’s College, London and Merton College, Oxford; Christchurch Cathedral Choir, Oxford; The Gesualdo Six; The Cardinall’s Musick; The Tallis Scholars; the choirs of Trinity College and Clare College, Cambridge; Tenebrae; Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightment.
As 2016 draws to a close, we stand on the cusp of a post-Europe, pre-Trump world. Perhaps we will look back on current times with the nostalgic romanticism of Richard Strauss’s 1911 paean to past glories, comforts and certainties: Der Rosenkavalier.
Ah, Loft Opera. It’s part of the experience to wander down many dark streets, confused and lost, in a part of Brooklyn you’ve never been. It is that exclusive—you can’t even find the performance!
Let’s start by getting a couple of gripes out of the way. First, the final act of Die Walküre does not constitute a full-length concert, even with a distinguished cast and orchestra, and with animated drawings fluttering on a giant screen.
When you combine two charismatic New York stage divas with the artistry of Los Angeles Opera, you have a mix that explodes into singing, dancing and an evening of superb entertainment.
Roderick Williams’ and Julius Drake’s English Winter Journey seems such a perfect concept that one wonders why no one had previously thought of compiling a sequence of 24 songs by English composers to mirror, complement and discourse with Schubert’s song-cycle of love and loss.
A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.
Opening night at the Metropolitan is a gleeful occasion even when the composer is long gone, but December 1st was an opening for a living composer who has been making waves around the world and is, gasp, a woman — the second woman composer ever to have an opera presented at the Met.
For an opera that has never quite made it over the threshold into the ‘canonical’, the adolescent Mozart’s La finta giardiniera has not done badly of late for productions in the UK. In 2014, Glyndebourne presented Frederic Wake-Walker’s take on the eighteen-year-old’s dramma giocoso. Wake-Walker turned the romantic shenanigans and skirmishes into a debate on the nature of reality, in which the director tore off layers of theatrical artifice in order to answer Auden’s rhetorical question, ‘O tell me the truth about love’.
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.