LONG seen as little more than a curiosity, Benjamin Britten’s first opera, Paul Bunyan, was brought back to life last year by the ENO at Wilton’s Music Hall in London. The curious venue suited it well, but this year’s move to another former music hall is even better.
The Alexandra Palace Theatre began life in 1875 as a magnificently engineered stage for theatrical spectacles, with the best of Victorian special effects allowing performers to fly through the air and appear and disappear as if by magic. Sadly, it was soon matched by more central London theatres and it ceased to operate as a theatre when Ally Pally, as it became known, became the centre of BBC broadcasting in the mid-1930s. It reopened after extensive renovation last December, which has wisely avoided the temptation to rebuild and redecorate the place but instead retains much of the apparently shambolic design of a former music hall.
The current production makes imaginative use of the huge space offered by the theatre, with performers making appearances in the gallery and between the aisles as well as on the stage, giving the whole opera the feel of a very up-market pantomime.
Paul Bunyan was the first of Benjamin Britten’s operas, written in 1941 in the United States where the composer spent the war years. Envisaged originally as an all-American musical for a high school production, it was a collaboration between the composer and the poet WH Auden who wrote the lyrics.
As one might expect, the lyrics are very fine, with some deliciously funny lines which included rhymes such as ‘Scandinavia’ and ‘behaviour’. Less attention, however, seems to have been given to developing and explaining the plot, which remains bizarre in places.
The whole piece is based on the legend of a giant of a man named Paul Bunyan, whose best friend was an ox named Babe and who inspired the pioneers who built America on a diet of soup and beans.
Quite why the whole thing is introduced and commented on throughout by a trio of geese is never really explained, and why the strongest character, Johnny Inkslinger, is never properly developed to play a major part in the story is a bit of a mystery, but such incongruities add to the piece’s pantomimic charm.
The music is heavily influenced by American styles of the time including Country and Western and even Broadway musicals, which makes it much more cheerful and accessible than in Britten’s later operas.
The young cast perform with impressive gusto, especially Elgan Llyr Thomas as Johnny Inkslinger the bookkeeper, Rowan Pierce as Tiny, Paul Bunyan’s daughter, and Zwakele Tshabalala as the cook who can do better than soup and beans.
The chorus, in the meantime, surprisingly appear in the stalls and gallery at various times, even handing out sweets to the audience during the final party scene.
At the end, they all sing about saving animals and men, which seems rather pretentious given the jollity that has preceded it, but Britten always did take himself rather too seriously.
This time, however, it does not really matter, because the performers are so clearly enjoying themselves and the audience greatly appreciated it. An excellent display of the latest crop of young talent being produced by the ENO.