Opera: Log jam

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The Independent Culture
MUSICALLY A miracle, dramatically a dog. "I knew nothing about opera or what is required of a librettist. In consequence, some very lovely music of Britten's went down the drain and I must now make apologies to my old friend, while wishing him a happy birthday."

Auden's words in a 50th birthday tribute to Benjamin Britten in 1963 recalled their collaboration on Paul Bunyan, Britten's first full-length opera some 20 years before. Britten, Pears, Auden and Isherwood were all living in the US, escaping Europe in the Thirties.

Paul Bunyan had an uncertain start: a suggested commission for a school operetta, aspiring to a Broadway production, finally being staged by Columbia University with chorus from the New York Schola Cantorum. This was in May 1941.

Criticism was biting: "Mr Britten had prepared us for the plausibility and adroitness of his composing by symphonic works which have met with a measure of success in concert halls on both sides of the Atlantic," read the review in The New York Times.

"He is a very clever young man, who can provide something [in] any style desired by the patron. He scores with expertness and fluency. He has a melodic vein which is plausible, though one without physiognomy. He shows what could be done by a composer whose purpose was deeper set and more consistent than Mr Britten's appears to be. For this reason the respects in which he was lacking were disappointing, at times irritating."

But much of this is not incorrect. Mr Britten was indeed clever, and his ability to swing between styles - hillbilly, blues, barber-shop, Puccini and his own authentic voice - astonishing. But a text so bereft of dramatic build fatally undermined the musical power of one number after the other. The work is not musically flawed; Bunyan provides a proving ground for the opera that was to make his name four years later - Peter Grimes.

Recuperating from illness in 1973, Britten turned again to Bunyan, making revisions. A radio performance led in 1976 to a staging at the Aldeburgh Festival. It is this version that the royal Opera so triumphantly presented two years ago and which is now in revival at Sadler's Wells. The cast is virtually the same. New to this production is Kurt Streit as "John Inkslinger" and Timothy Robinson as "Hot Biscuit Slim," both of them outstanding.

But Bunyan is an ensemble piece, as dependent on its chorus as on the few main roles. Even if they were more like Russian peasants than American loggers, their singing was magnificent. Richard Hickox conducting might have allowed more swing and guitar to the three ballads of the narrator, Peter Coleman-Wright, but a worthy night out.