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Paul Bunyan, English Touring Opera, review

Linbury Theatre, London

ETO has atoned for the baleful austerity of Tippett’s King Priam with a production of Britten’s ‘choral operetta’ Paul Bunyan whose homespun charm would melt a heart of stone.

Taking his cue from the composer and his librettist WH Auden, director Liam Steel has capitalised on the fact that his central character – the giant logger of American folk-lore – is an unseen voice (here companionably delivered by Damian Lewis), and has presented the work as a series of songs, dances, and miniature dramas enacted by loggers and their women in a communal cabin.

And this inventive marriage of sight and sound is flawless from start to finish. Auden’s verses ruminate wittily (but with deep implication) on what ‘America’ means; Britten’s deceptively subtle music interweaves folksong with blues and Broadway, and is studded with pre-echoes of the great works he would go on to create.

In as fine-tuned an ensemble as this it’s invidious to single out individual performances; suffice it to say that I was bewitched by the burgeoning love-affair between Tiny (Caryl Hughes) and Slim (Ashley Catling), intrigued by Inkslinger (Mark Wilde), and convulsed by the campest pair of cooks in Christendom.

Philip Sunderland and his band hit the button throughout.