When Peri, Monteverdi and the other founders of opera first created the genre, it’s a safe bet that “giant lumberjack hero clearing the forests of North America, accompanied by faithful blue ox” wasn’t on the list of subjects they had in mind. But that’s what Benjamin Britten chose for his first opera, Paul Bunyan, premiered unsuccessfully in 1941 at Columbia University in New York and hardly staged since – until English National Opera’s production at Wilton’s Music Hall in September 2018, revived last night in the wonderfully renovated Victorian theatre at Alexandra Palace.

ENO Chorus © Lloyd Winters
ENO Chorus
© Lloyd Winters

If you’re looking for a pigeon-hole into which to place Paul Bunyan, don’t bother. More than half a century before the current generation of American composers have been assembling operas out of a mash-up of different musical styles, Britten was there, taking everything from his own choral style, conventional opera, country, cowboy movie ballads, blues and even advertising jingles to create an eclectic pot-pourri. W H Auden’s libretto is even more off base, veering between sentimentality, slapstick, ironic humour and some genuinely touching serious poetry.

But goodness, what melodic gifts Britten brought to this work! The two hours of music brim with melody, and James Henshaw and the ENO Orchestra – expanded from the Wilton’s premiere to deal with the considerably larger space at Ally Pally – give a glorious account of it, light, airy, pacy. The singers, almost all of the many parts drawn from the ENO Chorus, are delightfully engaging. Two soloists stand out from the pack: Elgan Llŷr Thomas giving us a mellifluous, lyrical rendering of Johnny Inkslinger, the bookkeeper with artistic ambitions, and Zwakele Tshabalala bursting with energy as the dashing cook Hot Biscuit Slim.

Zwakele Tshabalala (Hot Biscuit Slim) © Lloyd Winters
Zwakele Tshabalala (Hot Biscuit Slim)
© Lloyd Winters

But the unquestioned stars of the show are the ENO Chorus, who truly knock it out of the park. Stage director Jamie Manton spreads them through the audience, making use of the theatre’s generous aisles and high galleries. For many of those close to an aisle, it will have been a first experience of hearing a full-sized operatic voice singing a couple of feet away from their ear, which is an awesome thing at full power but perhaps even more impressive hearing the detail at pianissimo. It enabled us to hear individual lines and fully appreciate the extraordinary skill with which Britten builds his choral harmonies.

Elgan Llŷr Thomas (Johnny Inkslinger) © Lloyd Winters
Elgan Llŷr Thomas (Johnny Inkslinger)
© Lloyd Winters

The construction of the piece is just plain odd. The title role is an off-stage spoken role; in this production, it’s played back in a decidedly voice-of-god style from a recording by Simon Russell Beale (which is mildly spooky when he is engaged in dialogue with live actor/singers). Britten’s baritone/tenor on-stage narrator is replaced by a trio of female voices, the rest of the cast comprising lumberjacks, cooks, speaking trees and various animals including wild geese, a dog and two cats. There’s a marvellous “Quartet of the Defeated”: who knew that Britten could write blues? The action is episodic and disjointed – we get anything from a hilarious rebellion against the camp’s insanitary cooks to the arrival of a team of lumberjacks sent by the King of Sweden to a romance between Hot Biscuit Slim and Paul’s daughter (who is normal human-sized and therefore named “Tiny”). In the folk tradition, Paul is a hero, a teller of tall tales, but that’s not how Auden and Britten play it: here, he is a god-like figure: a benevolent life force who is the ultimate source of power for everything that happens in the camp and the custodian of the American Dream for all its people.

Claire Pendleton, Sophie Goldrick, Lydia Marchione © Lloyd Winters
Claire Pendleton, Sophie Goldrick, Lydia Marchione
© Lloyd Winters

In today’s age, the main message is problematic. In 1941, it was still possible to see the large scale clearing of forests for human habitation as a heroic, pioneering enterprise. In this century, with the twin threats of climate change and loss of biodiversity through habitat degradation, you have to suppress a shudder at the glorification of destruction of the trees. Fortunately, this production is so full of life, love, energy and sheer melodic joy that it makes it easy to shut all of that out and enjoy the ride.

I have no idea what Paul Bunyan really is. But hats off to ENO for turning something quite so bizarre into such a riotously enjoyable evening.


****1