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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.

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