Paul Bunyan by the ENO at the Wilton's Music Hall
Paul Bunyan is an American legend – a giant lumberjack with Titanic power and strength. In folklore, he and his blue ox named Babe are said to be responsible for the creation of several American landscapes and natural wonders including the 10,000 lakes of Minnesota, Mount Hood and the Grand Canyon. Today undoubtedly, in Trump’s America, they would regard this as ‘fakelore’!
However, in 1941, Benjamin Britten teamed up with his librettist W. H. Auden for the premiere of the opera Paul Bunyan, which is based on Bunyan’s life and lumberjack works. The story revolves around his lumberjack recruits – some from Sweden – who go logging in an American forest, but after time, tire and wish to become farmers, which in the end, they do. The music incorporates various American styles including folk, blues and hymns. This was one of Britten’s early lyric works and is a considerable fore-runner of his musical style, becoming his first real music drama. The composer decided to withdraw this work for many years until its reintroduction in the 1970s, followed by a re-working of the music by the composer just before his death in 1976.
In presenting this work, the English National Opera used the wonderful 150 year old location of Wilton’s Music Hall as their venue. This was Paul Bunyan’s first performance by ENO and the intimacy of Wilton’s – approximately 250 seats – added to the overall experience for both the audience and the cast. The director Jamie Manton, with his producer Nicholas Roberts, had an incredible journey in ensuring that their cast of 38 principle singers, together with a chorus of approximately of 40 and an orchestra of approximately 25, were able to fit into the auditorium and move around the stage in the smallest of space. They achieved a miracle and congratulations for this must go also to the designer Camilla Clarke, and the choreographer Jasmine Ricketts.
The conductor Matthew Kofi Waldren controlled the evening’s proceedings superbly with the orchestra based at the top and back of the stage and the percussion at the side. There was no pit. The outstanding chorus sang from all places in the auditorium, including around the audience, and in the small space the intensity of the music, sound and drama was mind-blowing.
The libretto of Auden was elaborate and intellectual in an opera with very few main roles for the female voice. There was concern as to whether Auden’s libretto was complementary to the music or ancillary. ‘America is what you choose to make it’ perhaps brings a very modern interpretation of the 1940’s libretto! Britten’s collaboration with Auden was complete after this opera.
In a collaboration with ENO Studio Live and Outside, the production highlighted four ENO Harewood Artists in the main roles. Elgan Llŷr Thomas was the bookkeeper Johnny Inkslinger, Rowan Pierce was Paul Bunyan’s daughter Tiny, William Morgan was the good cook Hot Biscuit Slim and Matthew Durkan was the Swedish foreman Helson. Great performances by them all, with the stars perhaps going to the tenor of Thomas and the soprano of Pierce. The three white-suited narrators – in this production, all female – were sung by Claire Mitcher, Rebecca Stockland and Susan-Tudor Thomas, with the soprano of Fflur Wyn as Fido the dog. Many other wonderful parts, too numerous to mention, were well played, and included a hilarious Western Union Boy of David Newman. When Tiny and Hot Biscuit Slim marry at the end, they are converted into caricatures of Elvis and Marilyn. Somewhat daft but then so is the story!
ENO’s artistic director Daniel Kramer made sure this production at Wilton’s Music Hall happened on his watch, and by the audience’s reaction it seemed to surpass all expectations.