Opera: Log jam
PAUL BUNYAN SADLER'S WELLS LONDON
Wednesday 28 April 1999
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.
Look beyond the usual shows for the best festive telly
Michelle Nijhuis' daughter insists (s)he is, and she learnt a valuable lesson on gender in books
newsFormer soldier taped 33 of the animals to the floor and then stamped on them one by one
Arts & Ents blogs
Exclusive: Young people ‘want UK to stay in Europe’: Four in 10 adults aged 18 to 24 are ‘firmly in favour’ of membership, poll shows
Tom Daley ‘is gay because his father died’ says UK evangelist
Iain Duncan Smith leaves Commons food banks debate early
Kiss and yell: Italian protester charged with sexual assault after kissing riot police officer
PM denies two child limit for benefits is part of Tory welfare policy
Anachronistic and iniquitous, grammar schools are a blot on the British education system
- 1 Sun will 'flip upside down' within weeks, says Nasa
- 2 Christmas comes early: Justin Bieber is 'retiring from music'
- 3 Iain Duncan Smith leaves Commons food banks debate early
- 4 Cycle death inquest: Boyfriend hugs driver of 32 tonne tipper truck that killed his girlfriend
- 5 Burglar steals video tapes of child abuse, hands them into police
- < Previous
- Next >