No one would pretend that this is top-flight Britten, but what glimmers so magically in the music is the promise of greatness to come; the dark brooding of Peter Grimes and Billy Budd and the deft melodic lines of A Midsummer Night’s Dream have their genesis in Paul Bunyan. For all its apparent inconsequence, this is Britten emerging as a major talent.
At first sight, the legend of Paul Bunyan, the giant who directs a team of lumberjacks, seems a strange choice for Britten and his librettist WH Auden (and way ahead of Monty Python), but this is 1941 and both men have been living in exile in the United States since the outbreak of war. This is their reflection on their temporary, adopted home; their comment on humanity’s taming of that great continent and the shaping of a modern America.
In this way, their operetta was reflecting the profound nature of US musicals and theatre of the period, carefully examining the fallout from the Great Depression and the hope of the New Deal, while raising a sceptical eyebrow at the American Dream.
Britten adds bite to Auden’s satirical text by setting it to the music of the New World – folk songs, spirituals, the blues and Broadway all have their place in the score. It went down badly at its first outing in New York and was all but forgotten until revived and revised in 1974, shortly before Britten’s death. It’s this revision that we hear at Wilton’s, staged in an ENO Studio Live production, showcasing some impressive emerging talent.
Chief among the new faces are tenor Elgan Llŷr Thomas, as Johnny Inkslinger, the bookkeeper who dreams of a better life, soprano Rowan Pierce as the giant’s daughter, Tiny, baritone Matthew Durkan as the hopeless foreman Hel Helson and tenor William Morgan as Hot Biscuit Slim, the cook. But it is perhaps invidious to pick names in what is essentially a roistering ensemble production, with ENO’s outstanding chorus once again working its socks off.
Jamie Manton directs with a keen eye for comedy and crowd mania, and designers Camilla Clarke and Laura Haley dress the whole thing with wit and style. Matthew Kofi Waldren conducts his admirable players with calm assurance, given the constraints of the scaffolding set that stacks some of his instrumentalists out of sight. (Thank heavens for camera technology.) And excellent diction coaching from Martin Ball makes every word count, with accents consistent throughout.
Shining among all this new talent is one particularly established starry name. The disembodied speaking voice of Paul Bunyan belongs to Simon Russell Beale, who imparts Bunyan’s wisdom with a god-like gravity, surveying all before him and reflecting that 'America is what you choose to make it.'
|What||Paul Bunyan review , Wilton's Music Hall|
|Where||Wilton's Music Hall, 1 Graces Alley, London, E1 8JB | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Tower Hill (underground)|
03 Sep 18 – 08 Sep 18, 7:30 PM – 10:00 PM
|Price||£15 - 32.50|
|Website||Click here for more information and booking|