The trouble with Paul Bunyan is that the music is too good. If Benjamin Britten hadn’t been bursting with creativity and bristling with technical accomplishment in 1941—and had he not revised the score and passed it for publication just before his death—W.H. Auden’s slipshod libretto would have condemned the piece to oblivion. But the music buoys up and speeds along this ragbag of ideas; and English National Opera were right to give it another outing in London.
The concept went through several stages of inflation. Stranded or sheltering in the United States after the outbreak of WWII, Auden and Britten conceived the project as a very superior high school musical. It grew into an operetta for a semi-professional cast, and by the time of its premiere at Columbia University, it was being lined up as a Broadway musical. But damning reviews put paid to that.
During this period of abnormally rapid growth (rather appropriate, given its title character), Auden and Britten added more and more elements to the rather limited possibilities presented by the stark myth of a giant lumberjack. So, Paul Bunyan became a portrait of the birth of a nation, with allusions to the Garden of Eden story and references to labour relations and the New Deal thrown, rather than blended, into the mix. Auden’s verse is a melange of fuzzy mysticism, passable imitation of folksong, and trite rhyming (‘work’ with ‘shirk’, for heaven’s sake).
Yet by creating his own dramatic rhythm and emotional narrative (and ignoring some of Auden’s jokes) Britten sewed all this into a reasonably durable tapestry. Of course Paul Bunyan is an intriguing anticipation of what was to come; the choruses in which the mob of conformity turns on the individual outsider point clearly towards Peter Grimes. But ENO’s production proved it can also be an involving theatrical event.
For this show the company relocated to Wilton’s, a restored mid-19th-century music hall in the East End of London, now a versatile arts centre. I saw the final sold-out performance on Sept. 8. The experience was an immersive one, with the chorus frequently surrounding the audience. Many of the principal roles were taken by chorus members or singers from artist development programs. The one star name in the cast was the Shakespearean actor Simon Russell Beale as the unseen Bunyan himself. His pre-recorded contributions were rather let down by amplification that made them sound more like station announcements than a voice from above.
Given the work’s strange genesis, it can be debated to what extent the singing should be ‘operatic’. This production opted for the sort of shouty delivery that has now become the norm in stage musicals. As a result, vocal beauty was rarely in evidence. The major exception was Rowan Pierce as Tiny, Bunyan’s daughter—her aria was put over with glowing tone and an impeccable line, and was a reminder that a lovely sound can be at least as expressive as an ugly one.
The other singer whose timbre was particularly pleasing was the Canadian in the cast, Trevor Eliot Bowes, as the ‘bad cook’ Ben Benny. His warm, smooth bass carried without effort and his comic double act with Graeme Lauren as Sam Sharkey was very well judged. Elgan Llŷr Thomas sang strongly and gave character depth to Johnny Inkslinger. Matthew Durkan was a surprising casting choice for Bunyan’s rival, Hel Helson, as his vocal and physical presence conveyed sensitivity more than challenging might. William Morgan’s solo singing was rather insecure as Slim, though better controlled in his duets with Tiny. David Newman was an audience favourite as the eager Western Union boy.
Jamie Manton’s busy production (designs by Camilla Clarke) kept up the energy levels admirably, though at times it would have been preferable to simplify rather than add yet more ingredients to the stew of themes. I never did work out why Babe, the blue bull that is Bunyan’s companion and muse, was represented as a lunch box and a bank of refrigerators. The ENO musicians played marvellously for conductor Matthew Kofi Waldren. Special mention should be given to Marc Rosette for lighting the show so effectively when the action took place in so many parts of the venue.