|© Richard Hubert Smith, www.richardhs.com|
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 19 2014
Liam Steel's production of Britten's first opera delights and charms
Britten's Paul Bunyan has had a surprising amount of currency during the centenary year, though the previous two productions were centred on young singers (WNO Youth Opera and British Youth Opera). English Touring Opera's new production was a welcome chance to hear maturer voices, in Liam Steel's engaging production, designed by Anna Fleischle. Britten and Auden's operetta was originally written for student performance and so has a large cast, which forms quite a challenge for a touring company like ETO. But one to which they rose magnificently. Many of the singers are appearing in more than one opera, so you can hear Wyn Pencarreg both as Britten's Hel Helson and Mozart's Papageno, whilst Ashley Catling doubles as Hot Biscuit Slim and Tamino, Adrian Dwyer is singing the role of Johnny Inkslinger for the second half of the run along with Hermes in King Priam and Piotr Lempa who plays Ben Benny, is also Patroclus in King Priam and i sharing the roles of Sarastro and the Speaker in The Magic Flute.
Last night (19 February) at the Linbury Studio Theatre, I heard Mark Wilde as Johnny Inkslinger and the Lead Balladeer, with Wyn Pencarreg as Hel Helson, Caryl Hughes as Tiny, Ashley Catling as Hot Biscuit Slim, Stuart Haycock as Sam Sharkey and Andy Anderson, Piotr Lempa as Ben Benny, Abigail Kelly as Fido, Amy J Payne as Moppet, Emma Watkinson as Poppet, Matt R J Ward as Western Union Boy, Adam Tunnicliffe as John Shears, Matthew Sprange as Cross Crosshaulson, and Maciek O'Shea as Jen Jenson, with Johnn Herford, Simon Gfeller, Henry Manning, Hannah Sawle, Lorna Bridge, Anabel Mountford, Helen Johnson, Susan Moore and Emily-Jane Thomas. Philip Sunderland conducted.
Fleischle's set consisted of a barn, in which a group of American pioneers gather to act out stories. Rather impressively, Mark Wilde performed the Balladeer's songs accompanying himself on guitar, joined by Maciek O'Shea also on guitar and the occasional contribution on washboard, which lent the procedungs an immediacy, as well as highlighting the theme of story telling.
The role of Paul Bunyan is an off stage one. Here the actor Damian Lewis had pre recorded the role, whilst a hat and a step ladder did duty in the pioneers' tales. Lewis spoke Auden's poetic text beautifully and affectingly, rendering it as the poetry that it is.
I have to confess that I have often found Paul Bunyan a little too clever, with a sense that Britten and Auden were a bit too pleased at their own cleverness. Steele's production diffused this with its infectious sense of story telling and, with the cast doubling roles and creating props out of nothing, a certain charming homespun quality. I am aware that what we saw is the result of art and artifice, but it worked. This was a product that engaged and charmed.
It was a very physical production, with some of the chorus numbers almost as production numbers which worked very well. There was not choreographer credited so I presume Steel arranged the movement himself. Matt R J Ward as the Western Union Boy had two brilliant dance moments, showing of his skills.
|Mark Wilde as Johnny Inkslinger|
© Richard Hubert Smith, www.richardhs.com
Whilst individual performances shone, what impressed most was the way Steel had created a real, strong ensemble. All the cast had to perform multiple roles, and everyone was expected to be highly physical. The nature of the production also meant that a singer like Helen Johnson, who was technically down to do the roles of a Blues Singer and the Squirrel in Hel Helson's dream, in fact had a central role to play in the on-going story-telling drama. The detail and inventiveness which went into Steel's production (with some delightful props from Anna Fleischle) made the whole event truly involving. And if the cast weren't having fun, then they certainly managed to convince us that they were.
|© Richard Hubert Smith, www.richardhs.com|
As with King Priam the orchestra was placed behind stage to provide a more sympathetic balance in the Linbury Studio Theatre. Unlike King Priam the rather open wooden set did not appear to impede the sound and the orchestra under Philip Sunderland came over very well.
This is a delightful revival of one of Britten's lesser known operas and I would urge everyone to catch the production whilst it is on tour. ETO are playing their current season until 31 May, see their website for details.
Elsewhere on this blog:
- Powerful performance: Rigoletto at ENO
- See it if you can: ETO in Tippett's King Priam
- Mei Yi Foo: Lunchtime recital at Wigmore Hall
- Chansonnerie from Londinium
- Dance away: Ciaccona from Guillermo Brachetta - CD review
- Luminous: Vox Luminis at Cadogan Hall
- Forgotten tenor: Walter Widdop - Book review
- Three generations: Philharmonia Orchestra in RVW, Ades and Britten
- Arboles lloran pro lluvia Music from Estonia composer Helena Tulva - CD review
- Serenade: Aurora Orchestra at the Wigmore Hall
- Fine inner life: Handel's Theodora at the Barbican
- Women as Men, my article on Classical Music Magazine