Paul Bunyan is something of an oddity in Benjamin Britten’s oeuvre; a satirical operetta (with a libretto by W.H. Auden) about pioneers in America who are led by the gigantic lumberjack Paul Bunyan. English Touring Opera’s performance of Britten’s unduly neglected first opera certainly made a strong argument for further performances.

Caryl Hughes (Tiny) © Richard Hubert Smith
Caryl Hughes (Tiny)
© Richard Hubert Smith

The opera itself is not so much about Paul Bunyan himself, but the logging camp he sets up and the lumberjacks who live there. In a sense, Paul Bunyan is made up of snapshots of everyday life, from the setting up of camp and distribution of roles, to a final Christmas dinner, at which the characters head their separate ways. The overarching storyline, if any, is that of the birth of America, the building a new country, and the abandment of their settlement to pursue life elsewhere in the land they have created.

The title character of Paul Bunyan is never once seen onstage. He is an American-Canadian folkloric lumberjack of truly gigantic size; in Britten’s opera he is described as being “as tall as the Empire State” by the age of eight, and his stride as being 3.7 miles long! His contributions are spoken off-stage - heard, talked about, and depicted by the other lumberjacks.

Britten’s score displays a multitude of musical styles, especially more popular idioms such as folk songs, blues and hymns, but also more sophisticated numbers, pointing towards Peter Grimes and beyond. Despite the use of these popular genres, it still sounds uncannily like Britten, as well as like the musical theatre of the day; an interesting combination. Auden’s libretto seems at times to be hell-bent on sticking it to the Americans and is overall rather delightful. However, it is very clear that the poet was very much aware of this, resulting in a libretto which often tries to be funny for the sake of it. There is also some truly atrocious rhyming going on, one example being “Scandinavia – behaviour.” Somehow Auden gets away with it.

Liam Steel’s intimate production was entirely set within a pioneer’s hut, even the Prologue which consists of singing trees and birds. Staging this scene in the hut itself almost gave the impression that it is not the trees and birds singing, but rather the pioneers putting on some kind of entertainment for themselves. The Prologue segued straight into the first of the many ballad interludes, the pioneers telling the story of Paul Bunyan and later the story of themselves.

Company members (Paul Bunyan) © Richard Hubert Smith
Company members (Paul Bunyan)
© Richard Hubert Smith

Paul Bunyan is very much a company effort, with few actual arias, but instead several ensembles. Act I suffers in this respect, a steady stream of introductory witticisms that never progresses the action, although that is more the fault of Auden and Britten than of this production. The singers function both as chorus and as soloists in the opera’s many small roles, with many singers doubling parts. They managed to characterise them to such an extent that confusion in general was avoided.

The singing was good, especially in the big ensembles and chorus numbers. Among the larger roles, the casting was on the good side, but variable. Damian Lewis, whose performance of the spoken role of Bunyan was recorded, gave the role the appropriate fatherliness; kindly, but stern when needed. Caryl Hughes, Bunyan’s daughter Tiny, was effective on stage and her Act I song “Whether the sun shine upon children playing” was one of the highlights of the evening.

Mark Wilde’s bright tenor and general stage presence was rather fitting to the book-loving Johnny Inkslinger, even though I could have wanted a bit more variety in his voice. However, his Act 1 aria was wonderfully characterised. The production's biggest problem was the insistence of all involved to speak with an American accent, not a strange choice given the piece’s setting, but it sounded contrived.

The orchestra was onstage, semi-obscured by the back wall of the hut. Despite being rather reduced in terms of forces, it was not very noticeable and only added to the intimacy of the performance, although could occasionally sound a little thin. Conductor Philip Sunderland gave a straightforward reading of the score, with the instrumental interludes, especially those imitating birds and other animals being especially magical.

Britten’s Paul Bunyan will probably never be one of Britten’s most played pieces, especially outside the English-speaking world, with its reliance on native (American) English speakers and its questionable libretto. Still, the piece’s many charms outweigh most of its faults. After seeing this production by the English Touring Opera, I would be delighted to see it performed more frequently.