Wednesday 11 September 2013

Britten's Paul Bunyan - British Youth Opera

 Four Young Trees, Three Wild Geese and Chorus of Old Trees in BYO's Paul Bunyan [Credit: Clive Barda / ArenaPAL]
Prologue to Paul Bunyan, British Youth Opera
[Credit: Clive Barda / ArenaPAL]
Britten and Auden's choral operetta Paul Bunyan was written for student performance at Columbia University and its large number of roles means that it is idea for performance by a company like British Youth Opera and their production at the Peacock Theatre forms an ideal contribution to the Britten Centenary year. We caught the second performance (10 September 2013) of William Kerley's production, designed by Jason Southgate. Peter Robinson, artistic director of British Youth Opera, conducted a huge cast including Christopher Jacklin, Will Edelstein, Timothy Connor, Alex Aldren Oskar Palmblad, Samuel Smith, Emily Vine, Grace Durham, Ayaka Tanimoto, Peter Kirk and Louise Kemeny.

I had never seen Paul Bunyan on stage before, and it is certainly a curious and fascinating piece. Britten and Auden's longest collaboration, it is a highly eclectic piece with both words and music referencing popular culture. But Auden's text is often high-falutin' (especially Paul Bunyan's pronouncements) and the final Litany with its lists of the evils of modern living, takes the piece to a different place both musically and dramatically. Britten revised the work in 1974-75 for its performance at Aldeburgh in 1976, but what we hear is substantially what he wrote in 1941.

As Peter Robinson points out in the programme book, Britten was by no means inexperienced when he wrote the work, he had works like Les Illuminations, and the Sinfonia da Requiem under his belt. But the piece as the audaciousness of youth and it takes Britten to places he would never go again in his mature operas, most notably in the engagement with popular culture and with a sense of joie-de-vivre. For all Auden's sententious moralising, this is Britten's most carefree piece. And some pieces are positively dazzling, not just his appropriation of styles like country and western, but the way that he intercuts Slim and Tiny's Bellini-esque love duet with the choruses description of the fight between Hel Helson and Paul Bunyan.

For the prologue, in lieu of trees, director William Kerley and designer Jason Southgate made imaginative use of wooden brooms. These formed part of the set and were wielded by the cast. Dressed throughout as American pioneers (in the prologue they were still in their underwear), they formed an active commentary throughout the operetta. It is billed as a choral operetta and there is much to do for the chorus, in fact the whole piece is an ensemble. British Youth Opera used an ensemble of 44 singers who formed the chorus and the solo roles, coming together for the big moments and delivering a thrilling sound.

Britten was ever the practical composer and the named roles all get a solo moment, with something worthwhile to sing. The joy of the performance was the way that these solos rose out of the ensemble and then slipped back, whatever the virtues of individual singers (and there were many) this was above all a superb ensemble piece.

Christopher Jacklin was the narrator in convincing country and western-style, accompanied on-stage by guitarist Steven Joseph. Though the role of Paul Bunyan was designed to be heard but not seen, we did see Will Edelsten (who is the assistant director on the show). Besuited and carrying a megaphone (though actually miked) he opened the show sweeping the stage with a broom and then sat in a balcony at the side of the auditorium. When he interacted with the loggers, we saw a huge hand, or a huge eye appear on stage.

Timothy Connor made a delightful Hel Helson, his large physique amply suited to the role but he also displayed a fine baritone voice, especially in Helson's dream/nightmare sequence when he asks the animals of the forest what they think of him. Connor made Helson perhaps more charming and more subtle than he was intended to be, but that's hardly a problem in a lively work like this.

Samuel Smith made an appealing Johnny Inkslinger, the artist at sea in the logging camp, though Smith voice had a certain high-tension feel to it which suggest that he might eventually move into more dramatic repertoire. But Smith captured the loner feel of the role, the first of Britten's tenor outsiders.

Peter Kirk and Louise Kemeny made and attractive coupling as Slim and Tiny, giving a nice lyricism to their love duet. Alex Aldren and Oskar Palmblad were a comic delight as the two cooks one of whom can only cook beans and the other soup! Luke Sinclair, Stefan Kerkieta, Sally Dodds and Jan Capinski sang the strikingly blues-inflected Quartet of the Defeated. Emily Vine, Grace Durham and Ayaka Tanimoto were the camp pets, Fido, Moppet and Poppet, with Britten and Auden finding highly imaginative ways to use the three roles and Vine, Durham and Tanimoto did not disappoint.

Kerley and Southgate's production was highly imaginative, with everything formed from basic props, so the for Paul Bunyan's birth and youth we had a charming shadow-puppet show and Babe the blue cow was formed from people and sheets. Kerley kept the show moving and, with such a large cast, ensured that everything flowed seamlessly. The cast were tireless and energetic, the staging inventive, so that we were carried along too.

Conductor Peter Robinson martialled his large vocal forces with aplomb and directed the Southbank Sinfonia with a sympathetic ear for all the different cultural references in the score. The result was lively and convincing.

Operetta is never easy. Here the spoken dialogue was delivered capably and crisply, clearly a lot of work had been done and it showed. The diction in the sung passages was a little patchier, but I think the fault might partly be with the theatre's acoustics.

Paul Bunyan has its faults but it is a fascinating piece which shows Britten in a different light. British Youth Opera's superb ensemble performance gave the work its best showing in Britten's centenary year.

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