Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



Plumbago_9780993198359_1.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

ETO Autumn 2020 Season Announcement: Lyric Solitude

English Touring Opera are delighted to announce a season of lyric monodramas to tour nationally from October to December. The season features music for solo singer and piano by Argento, Britten, Tippett and Shostakovich with a bold and inventive approach to making opera during social distancing.

Love, always: Chanticleer, Live from London … via San Francisco

This tenth of ten Live from London concerts was in fact a recorded live performance from California. It was no less enjoyable for that, and it was also uplifting to learn that this wasn’t in fact the ‘last’ LfL event that we will be able to enjoy, courtesy of VOCES8 and their fellow vocal ensembles (more below …).

Dreams and delusions from Ian Bostridge and Imogen Cooper at Wigmore Hall

Ever since Wigmore Hall announced their superb series of autumn concerts, all streamed live and available free of charge, I’d been looking forward to this song recital by Ian Bostridge and Imogen Cooper.

Treasures of the English Renaissance: Stile Antico, Live from London

Although Stile Antico’s programme article for their Live from London recital introduced their selection from the many treasures of the English Renaissance in the context of the theological debates and upheavals of the Tudor and Elizabethan years, their performance was more evocative of private chamber music than of public liturgy.

A wonderful Wigmore Hall debut by Elizabeth Llewellyn

Evidently, face masks don’t stifle appreciative “Bravo!”s. And, reducing audience numbers doesn’t lower the volume of such acclamations. For, the audience at Wigmore Hall gave soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn and pianist Simon Lepper a greatly deserved warm reception and hearty response following this lunchtime recital of late-Romantic song.

The Sixteen: Music for Reflection, live from Kings Place

For this week’s Live from London vocal recital we moved from the home of VOCES8, St Anne and St Agnes in the City of London, to Kings Place, where The Sixteen - who have been associate artists at the venue for some time - presented a programme of music and words bound together by the theme of ‘reflection’.

Iestyn Davies and Elizabeth Kenny explore Dowland's directness and darkness at Hatfield House

'Such is your divine Disposation that both you excellently understand, and royally entertaine the Exercise of Musicke.’

Paradise Lost: Tête-à-Tête 2020

‘And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels, And prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven … that old serpent … Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.’

Joyce DiDonato: Met Stars Live in Concert

There was never any doubt that the fifth of the twelve Met Stars Live in Concert broadcasts was going to be a palpably intense and vivid event, as well as a musically stunning and theatrically enervating experience.

‘Where All Roses Go’: Apollo5, Live from London

‘Love’ was the theme for this Live from London performance by Apollo5. Given the complexity and diversity of that human emotion, and Apollo5’s reputation for versatility and diverse repertoire, ranging from Renaissance choral music to jazz, from contemporary classical works to popular song, it was no surprise that their programme spanned 500 years and several musical styles.

The Academy of St Martin in the Fields 're-connect'

The Academy of St Martin in the Fields have titled their autumn series of eight concerts - which are taking place at 5pm and 7.30pm on two Saturdays each month at their home venue in Trafalgar Square, and being filmed for streaming the following Thursday - ‘re:connect’.

Lucy Crowe and Allan Clayton join Sir Simon Rattle and the LSO at St Luke's

The London Symphony Orchestra opened their Autumn 2020 season with a homage to Oliver Knussen, who died at the age of 66 in July 2018. The programme traced a national musical lineage through the twentieth century, from Britten to Knussen, on to Mark-Anthony Turnage, and entwining the LSO and Rattle too.

Choral Dances: VOCES8, Live from London

With the Live from London digital vocal festival entering the second half of the series, the festival’s host, VOCES8, returned to their home at St Annes and St Agnes in the City of London to present a sequence of ‘Choral Dances’ - vocal music inspired by dance, embracing diverse genres from the Renaissance madrigal to swing jazz.

Royal Opera House Gala Concert

Just a few unison string wriggles from the opening of Mozart’s overture to Le nozze di Figaro are enough to make any opera-lover perch on the edge of their seat, in excited anticipation of the drama in music to come, so there could be no other curtain-raiser for this Gala Concert at the Royal Opera House, the latest instalment from ‘their House’ to ‘our houses’.

Fading: The Gesualdo Six at Live from London

"Before the ending of the day, creator of all things, we pray that, with your accustomed mercy, you may watch over us."

Met Stars Live in Concert: Lise Davidsen at the Oscarshall Palace in Oslo

The doors at The Metropolitan Opera will not open to live audiences until 2021 at the earliest, and the likelihood of normal operatic life resuming in cities around the world looks but a distant dream at present. But, while we may not be invited from our homes into the opera house for some time yet, with its free daily screenings of past productions and its pay-per-view Met Stars Live in Concert series, the Met continues to bring opera into our homes.

Precipice: The Grange Festival

Music-making at this year’s Grange Festival Opera may have fallen silent in June and July, but the country house and extensive grounds of The Grange provided an ideal setting for a weekend of twelve specially conceived ‘promenade’ performances encompassing music and dance.

Monteverdi: The Ache of Love - Live from London

There’s a “slide of harmony” and “all the bones leave your body at that moment and you collapse to the floor, it’s so extraordinary.”

Music for a While: Rowan Pierce and Christopher Glynn at Ryedale Online

“Music for a while, shall all your cares beguile.”

A Musical Reunion at Garsington Opera

The hum of bees rising from myriad scented blooms; gentle strains of birdsong; the cheerful chatter of picnickers beside a still lake; decorous thwacks of leather on willow; song and music floating through the warm evening air.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

ENO Studio Live, <em>Paul Bunyan</em> at Wilton’s Music Hall
06 Sep 2018

ENO Studio Live: Paul Bunyan

“A telegram, a telegram,/ A telegram from Hollywood./ Inkslinger is the name; And I think that the news is good.” The Western Union Boy’s missive, delivered to Johnny Inkslinger in the closing moments of 1941 ‘choral operetta’ Paul Bunyan and directly connecting the American Dream with success in Tinseltown, may have echoed an offer that Benjamin Britten himself received, for the composer had written expectantly to Wulff Scherchen on 7th February 1939, ‘(((Shshshsssh … I may have an offer from Holywood [sic] for a film, but don’t say a word))).’ Ten days later he wrote again: ‘Hollywood seems a bit nearer - I’ve got an interview with the Producer on Monday’.

ENO Studio Live, Paul Bunyan at Wilton’s Music Hall

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Paul Bunyan, ENO Chorus

Photo credit: Genevieve Girling

 

In the Edenic opening, the Chorus of Old Trees sing, “Man is a form of life/ That dreams in order to act/ And acts in order to dream”: in relating the myth of the legendary pioneering lumberjack, Paul Bunyan, Auden depicts an American utopia in which man strikes out to build a new world in which personal freedom, individual choice and tolerance are paramount values. The current social and political landscape, national and international, may give little cause for such faith and optimism, but in 1939, the feeling among Britten’s contemporaries that Europe was no place to live and that a brighter future lay in the New World, led Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears to set sail from Southampton on 29th April that year.

Britten wrote to his sister Barbara, on 3rd September 1939, ‘I’ve seen & am seeing Auden a lot, & our immediate future is locked with his, it seems.’ Five years earlier he had recorded in his diary, ‘Spend day with Coldstream and Auden … I always feel very young and stupid with these brains - I most sit silent when they hold forth about subjects in general. What brains!’ Later, in 1960, he told Lord Harewood in a BBC interview: ‘I was very much influenced by 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 that time felt that Europe was more or less finished.’

Sophie Goldrick Lydia Marchione Fflur Wyn.jpg Sophie Goldrick (Moppet), Lydia Marchione (Poppet), Fflur Wyn (Fido). Photo Credit: Genevieve Girling.

The Hollywood commission may not have materialised but there’s a wonderfully indulgent and uplifting optimism about Paul Bunyan - despite the occasional heavy-handed ideological spin and cynical mockery of American ‘can-do’ cheery confidence of W.H. Auden’s lexicographically dextrous libretto: “Do you feel a left-out at parties, when it comes to promotion are you pass over … then ask our nearest agent to tell you about soups for success.” Auden wasn’t above overt pillorying of what he saw as the facile values, neuroses and the vacuity of the Dream either: “You owe it to yourself to learn about Beans, and how this delicious food is the sure way to the body beautiful.”

First performed in May 1941 in Brander Matthews Hall, Columbia University, by the Columbia Theatre Associates, Paul Bunyan is a work of youthful hopes, independent choice and opportunity, and this ENO Studio Live production, directed by Jamie Manton and performed by an excellent young cast, fizzed with vitality, vivaciousness and positive vibes.

Auden’s text - condemned by contemporary reviewers such as Virgil Thompson (in the New York Herald Tribune, 6 May 1941) as having ‘no characters and no plot’ and for allegorical moralising that was ‘utterly obscure and tenuous’ - tells the legend of the pioneering lumberman, Paul Bunyan, who forged his way through the forests to found a New world. (One small quibble: what was the point of providing surtitle screens but placing them left and right, positioned above Wilton’s gallery, so that they were entirely obscured from the capacity audience seated in the stalls?)

Wilton’s Music Hall might seem, at superficial glance, an odd place to stage an agrarian idyll but this tastefully ramshackle building vibrates with a raw energy and resilience, and a sense of risk. Manton and choreographer Jasmine Ricketts pull the stopper out of the vitality bottle and there was absolutely no danger of the vim and verve running out as the cast and chorus whipped through Auden’s assemblage of episodes and Britten’s stylistic melange with gleeful enthusiasm.

The dynamism was unflagging, through fights, feasts and even a mock funeral. In fact, sometimes less might have been more - not least because some of the singers seemed to forget that they were not at the Coliseum and to underestimate the resonance of the Wilton’s acoustic - but the singing and playing was consistently thrilling in its intensity, even if a bit ear-splitting at times: a fortissimo “We’re bored!” from the revolutionary Young Trees (“Reds”, sneer their aging forbears) left no doubt about their impatience with their elder’s love of life in the slow lane.

Susanna Tudor-Thomas Claire Mitcher Rebecca Stockland.jpgSusanna Tudor-Thomas, Claire Mitcher, Rebecca Stockland (narrators). Photo Credit: Genevieve Girling.

I questioned a few of Manton’s decisions, such as why he chose to replace the balladeer narrator with a trio of female singers, thus excising an important unifying element and diminishing the hilly-billy folksiness of the guitar-accompanied ballads? Some of Auden’s character-names seem to have been drawn from the advertising promotion booklet prepared by William Laughead, an employee of the Red River Lumber Company, in 1914 which introduced loggers named Johnny Inkslinger, Chris Crosshaul and Sourdough Sam, as well as Bunyan’s best pal, Babe the blue ox. Here Babe was represented by cobalt-blue refrigerators bearing his name, miniature in dimension at first but subsequently a row of industrial-sized freezers from which emerged ENO Harewood Artists William Morgan and Rowan Pierce to sing the love duet of Hot Biscuit Slim and Bunyan’s daughter, Tiny, dressed as Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe respectively.

William-Morgan-Rowan-Pierce-c-Genevieve-Girling.jpg William Morgan (Slim), Rowan Pierce (Tiny). Photo Credit: Genevieve Girling.

And, there was one moment of magic that was sadly missed: when the “whole pattern of life is altered” and “Once in a while the moon turns blue”. In his biography of Britten, Humphrey Carpenter observed that Britten once remarked to Donald Mitchell, ‘That was Peter’, and a letter of 9 th January 1940 supports this idea, stating, ‘as long as I am with you, you can stay away until the moon turns blue’. Britten’s gamelan-inspired colours and textures convey mystery and exoticism: the Dream involves not just a yearning for material success but also a serious search for individualism and personal love. The hoisting of Bunyan’s initials in neon-lit blue didn’t cast the same moonlight enchantment.

Paul Bunyan is literally larger-than-life: a Herculean logger who is immense both physically and symbolically, capable of felling trees with a flick of the wrist. In the opera he is represented by a disembodied voice and here Simon Russell Beale’s recorded voice boomed with an authority both benevolent and demanding - and unfortunately with a resonance that was distorting and sometimes deafening.

Elgan-Llyr-Thomas.jpgElgan Llŷr Thomas (Johnny Inkslinger). Photo Credit: Genevieve Girling.

Elgan Llŷr Thomas was tremendous as the reflective Johnny Inkslinger, capturing all the complexity of feeling in ‘Inkslinger’s Song’, the deepening ruminations and self-examination being enhanced by the eerie spell cast by the woodwind accompaniment. Llŷr Thomas managed to communicate Auden’s articulation of the social conscience of 1930s - “Oh, but where are those beautiful places/ Where what you begin you complete,/ Were the joy shines out of men’s faces,/ And all get sufficient to eat?” - with persuasive personal sentiments.

Fellow Harewood Artist Matthew Durkan offered an unusual take on the arrogant foreman, Hel Helson: usually more brawn than brains, here he was more nerd than narcissist. Sophie Goldrick (Moppet) and Lydia Marchione (Poppet) made a delightful pair of crooning cats, while Fflur Wyn was excellent as the coloratura dog, Fido. The innocent earnestness and excitability of bicycle-bound messenger, David Newman, almost stole the show.

But, the real star here, and rightly so, was the ENO Chorus. Paul Bunyan may comprise a motley crew of characters but many of the solo voices step out from the chorus, and it is collective rather than individual expression that is uppermost. The ENO Chorus really raised the roof of Wilton’s, from the opening moments in which the Chorus of Old Trees gave us a surround-sound homily to the final resounding choric plea “Save animals and men”. Conductor Matthew Kofi Waldren stitched together the eclectic idioms with fluency and brightly coloured zest, the orchestra (Britten’s revised instrumentation was used) tiered on stage and spilling into the side-aisles.

Chorus-Genevieve-Girling.jpgENO Chorus. Photo Credit: Genevieve Girling.

In an oft-quoted letter of 31st January 1942, Auden urged Britten to embrace his political and sexual beliefs: ‘As you know I think you the white hope of music … and I think I know something about the dangers that beset you as a man and as an artist because they are my own’. Britten was not best pleased to be warned about the artistically destructive consequences of his attraction (and denial of such attraction) to ‘thin-as-a-board juveniles’ and the advice that if he was to develop as an artist he would have to stop ‘playing the talented little boy’ and ‘to suffer, and to make others suffer’.

Despite Auden’s avowal that it was his ‘love and admiration’ that made him so frank, estrangement followed, and Paul Bunyan languished, unperformed until 1974 when Britten revisited the score, revising excerpts for that year’s Aldeburgh Festival. The success of this performance encouraged him to undertake further revisions and a new version of the full operetta was broadcast by the BBC on 1st February 1976. Donald Mitchell described how, when Britten received the news of Auden’s death in September 1973, though the two men had not communicated for 30 years, Britten was devastated: ‘It was the only time I’d ever seen Ben weep.’ And, when he listened to the BBC radio broadcast, Mitchell remembered (as related by Humphrey Carpenter) that ‘Ben was profoundly moved by re-encountering this forgotten work from a forgotten - virtually suppressed - past. He hadn’t remembered that it was such a ‘strong piece’ - his words; and the impact of the music, combined with all the memories it aroused - of Auden, of the American years, of his own youth, energy and vitality - over-whelmed him.’

I’m not sure that this ENO production really captured the ‘innocent’ directness of Paul Bunyan. British Youth Opera’s 2014 production seemed more poignant to me. But, Manton delivered a strong message. In the last scene Paul Bunyan’s Voice utters the warning: “Every day America's destroyed and re-created,/ America is what you do./ America is I and you,/ America is what you choose to make it.” Now, there’s a thought for troubled times, on both sides of the pond.

Claire Seymour

Britten: Paul Bunyan

Voice of Paul Bunyan - Simon Russell Beale, Narrators - Claire Mitcher/Rebecca Stockland/Susanna-Tudor Thomas, Johnny Inkslinger - Elgan Llŷr Thomas, Tiny - Rowan Pierce, Slim - William Morgan, Sam Sharkey - Graeme Lauren, Ben Benny - Trevor Eliot Bowes, Hel Helson - Matthew Durkan, Four Swedes - Adam Sullivan/Geraint Hylton/Paul Sheehan/Andrew Tinkler, John Shears - Robert Winslade Anderson, Western Union Boy - David Newman, Fido - Fflur Wyn, Moppet - Sophie Goldrick, Poppet - Lydia Marchione, Quartet of the Defeated - Morag Boyle/David Newman/Michael Burke/Paul Sheehan, Three Wild Geese - Claire Mitcher/Rebecca Stockland/Susanna-Tudor Thomas, Young Trees - Rowan Pierce/Amy Kerenza Sedgwick/David Newman/Pablo Strong, Lumberjacks - Paul Sheehan/Ronald Nairne/Pablo Strong, Heron - Deborah Davison, Moon - Fiona Canfield, Wind - Amy Kerenza Sedgwick, Beetle - Susanne Joyce, Squirrel - Jane Read; director - James Manton, conductor - Matthew Kofi Waldren, designer - Camilla Clarke, lighting designer - Marc Rosette, choreography - Jasmine Ricketts, sound designer - Jorge Imperial, dialogue/dialect coach - Martin Ball, ENO Orchestra and Chorus.

Wilton’s Music Hall, London; Monday 3rd September 2018.

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):