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."