In 1939, Benjamin Britten and his partner Peter Pears, dismayed at the increasingly fraught situation in Europe, joined their friend WH Auden in the United States.
One of the artistic fruits of this period – they returned to the UK in 1942 – was Paul Bunyan, Britten’s first stage work and the only one with a libretto by Auden, from whom the composer was later estranged.
Though they hoped for a Broadway success, the show had a more muted launch and Britten put it away, seemingly forever — though in 1975, a year before his death, he revised it for performance.
Described as an operetta – perhaps because it’s too highbrow to be a musical but uses popular forms more than opera usually does – the piece plays with material pertaining to the legendary American lumberjack, a giant who together with his team cuts down the forests to prepare for ‘civilisation’.
It’s not an entirely successful piece. Though the material is clever and often witty, as a narrative it barely holds together, requiring a ballad singer to tell you what happens next – here harmlessly transferred from a single male vocalist to a female trio.
Bunyan himself is a recorded offstage voice – a part taken here by Simon Russell Beale, though with not quite enough verbal clarity. If the production doesn’t always tell the story efficiently, it’s not entirely the fault of director Jamie Manton. In fact he and his designers provide an entertaining and attractive show, with some memorable numbers.
Where the evening really scores is in the work of English National Opera’s chorus, sounding magnificent and demonstrating infallible stagecraft as they take on many of the secondary roles with boundless skill and personality.
Among the principals, Elgan Llyr Thomas’ Johnny Inkslinger and Rowan Pierce’s Tiny shine particularly brightly, while Matthew Kofi Waldren conducts a spick and span performance.