Opera Review: Fast and funny, but what's it about?

Paul Bunyan, Royal Opera House, Snape Maltings

Paul Bunyan

Royal Opera House, Snape Maltings

A week of mounting crisis at the beleaguered Royal Opera House, culminating in the resignation of the entire board, more than whetted the appetite for the company's first touring production as it begins its two years on the road. With its image at an all time low, it badly needs a success, and the choice of Britten's operetta about the mythical American logger would seem, on the face of it, an odd choice.

Critically, it was a disastrous flop when first performed at Columbia University in 1941, and lay neglected for 30 years until, after some revision, it was performed on Radio 3 in 1976, and at the Aldeburgh Festival in the same year, since when it has received no professionally staged production in this country.

Yet in many ways it could be an inspired choice. It is an ensemble opera with no major starring roles, which doesn't require any large and complicated sets, and has a score which, despite flaws, in general radiates an exuberant vitality. Hildegard Bechtler's design is practical, stark and effective: the profile of a vast tree at one side of the stage, a back cloth symbolic of the great American wilderness, the whole presided over by a giant Polo- mint moon.

Francesca Zambello's production is fast and funny. It makes one less conscious of Auden's eccentric and somewhat pretentious libretto and concentrates on a swiftly moving kaleidoscope of events, always exciting even when the narrative thread seems sometimes obscure. Zambello and movement director Denni Sayers choreograph the whole piece brilliantly: this on an almost always crowded stage.

There are no "operatic" roles as such, the closest approach to the serious side of the genre being some of Inkslinger's music, effectively sung by Thomas Randle, and the love duet for Tiny and Slim (Susan Grinon and Mark Padmore). An excellent trio of animals transmogrified for this production into human form (Britten must have had access to some jolly good students to manage the high coloratura), and a hilarious cameo from Henry Moss as the Western Union Boy: straight out of a Hollywood musical.

This is a production which must go some way to establishing Bunyan in the repertoire, yet niggling doubts remain. It is an uneven score, sometimes very exciting and with some excellent numbers, like the "Blues" in Act 1, yet there is a deal of not very interesting music, and the work remains difficult to categorise. "Operetta" doesn't really suit, nor is it really a musical: rather, it not quite succeeds in becoming the hybrid between opera and the musical that Bernstein succeeded in finding. Perhaps it's something to do with the odd match between Auden's libretto and Britten's music, for despite enjoying it immensely, I find myself agreeing with the Virgil Thomson's comment after the premiere: "I never did figure out the theme."

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Cleaner

    £15000 - £16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you've got first class custo...

    Recruitment Genius: Mobile Applications Developer / Architect - iOS and Android

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity to join a medium s...

    Recruitment Genius: Telesales Account Executive - £40K OTE

    £11830 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Working in a friendly, sales ta...

    Recruitment Genius: Web Designer

    £15000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's leading web des...

    Day In a Page

    John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

    Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

    'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
    Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

    Forget little green men

    Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
    Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

    Dying dream of Doctor Death

    Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy
    UK heatwave: Temperature reaches 39.8 degrees on Central Line - the sweatiest place in London

    39.8 degrees recorded on Tube

    There's hot (London) and too damn hot (the Underground). Simon Usborne braved the Central line to discover what its passengers suffer
    Kitchens go hi-tech: From robot chefs to recipe-shopping apps, computerised cooking is coming

    Computerised cooking is coming

    From apps that automatically make shopping lists from your recipe books to smart ovens and robot chefs, Kevin Maney rounds up innovations to make your mouth water
    Jessie Cave interview: The Harry Potter star has published a feminist collection of cartoons

    Jessie Cave's feminist cartoons

    The Harry Potter star tells Alice Jones how a one-night stand changed her life
    Football Beyond Borders: Even the most distruptive pupils score at homework club

    Education: Football Beyond Borders

    Add football to an after-school homework club, and even the naughtiest boys can score
    10 best barbecue books

    Fire up the barbie: 10 best barbecue books

    We've got Bibles to get you grilling and smoking like a true south American pro
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power
    Ron Dennis exclusive: ‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

    ‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

    Ron Dennis shrugs off a poor start to the season in an exclusive interview, and says the glory days will come back
    Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

    Making of a killer

    What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
    UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

    Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

    Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
    Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most