Paul Bunyan has one of the more touching backstories in opera. Britten and Auden were friends and collaborators through the 1930s (think of Our Hunting Fathers and the Hymn to St. Cecilia), and by 1940 were both living in America when asked to write a “high school operetta”. This promised to lead to a Broadway production, but Britten occasionally referred to “our opera”. The resulting work failed to please, and was put in a drawer and forgotten for over thirty years. Auden and Britten fell out, Britten went back to England, wrote Peter Grimes, which played a part in Sadler’s Wells becoming ENO, whose first production of Paul Bunyan this is. Auden, estranged from Britten, wrote major libretti for Stravinsky and Henze, and died in 1973. After Britten’s major heart surgery in the same year, he struggled with composing and so was persuaded, very reluctantly, to look again at Paul Bunyan.

Elgan Llŷr Thomas (Johnny Inkslinger) © Genevieve Girling
Elgan Llŷr Thomas (Johnny Inkslinger)
© Genevieve Girling

Some numbers were presented at the 1974 Aldeburgh Festival, and an ensuing radio broadcast of the full score was thus the second production it ever had. Its status still seems uncertain, perhaps because Faber Music’s score says “operetta”, suggesting something lightweight. But a performance as fine as this one makes it feel like an opera. Not maybe if we insist on operas being sung throughout – though not even Grimes or Gloriana achieve that. The proportion of music to speech in Bunyan is high for a musical, there is a substantial role for chorus, and poignancy in the cumulative effect. For all the musical fun along the way, the brilliant libretto and inexhaustible musical invention portray the creation of a new world, indeed of the New World.

ENO’s ‘Studio Live’ scheme brings opera to intimate spaces and showcases emerging talent. The space used here – Wilton’s Music Hall – languished abandoned a long time, like the score of Bunyan, and proved an inspired choice. Jamie Manton’s production used every inch of it at times, and the elements of the score that draw upon musical comedy, like the three narrative ballads that fill in the story, here seemed just right. The solo male balladeer was replaced with three feisty women (Claire Micher, Rebecca Stockland, and Susann-Tudor Thomas), which linked us to those other women storytellers, the Three Ladies of The Magic Flute and The Ring’s Norns .

William Morgan (Slim) and Rowan Pierce (Tiny) © Genevieve Girling
William Morgan (Slim) and Rowan Pierce (Tiny)
© Genevieve Girling

Elgan Llŷr Thomas was a charismatic Johnny Inkslinger, and managed the difficult trick of interacting plausibly with the large disembodied voice which is the only realisation Auden gives Paul Bunyan. That voice was pre-recorded by Simon Russell Beale, whose customary distinction was slightly compromised by the sibilance and reverberation of the recording, but not enough to compromise understanding. Matthew Durkan was engaging as the gauche lumberjack Hel Helson, and managed to retain some credibility starting a fight with Bunyan, a creature whose “length of stride’s a historical fact/ 3.7 miles to be exact”. William Morgan’s Slim was well sung, and he even survived his Act 2 ‘Elvis in Vegas’ costume when affianced to the delightful Tiny of Rowan Pierce. These ENO Harewood Artists in the lead roles all sounded ideal in this size of venue and scale of production.

Rowan Pierce (Tiny) © Genevieve Girling
Rowan Pierce (Tiny)
© Genevieve Girling

The many other small roles – there are more named parts here than in the Mastersingers – were sung by chorus members with a distinction that makes it clear just why the choral work at ENO is so strong. Elvis apart, the costumes were plausible modern ones, and the production and design did all that was required. The blue fridges of the second act were a curiosity, until one realised they bore the legend “Babe”, the name of the legendary giant blue ox that is companion to Paul Bunyan – his anima, Auden surmised. (Fridges and Bunyan’s ox are symbolic sources of sustenance therefore?) The stage business was witty and to the dramatic point. The pacing, musical preparation and orchestral playing were exemplary under ENO’s Mackerras Fellow Matthew Kofi Waldren. While the ENO Studio Live ethos hints – maybe – that we should moderate expectations and appreciate the potential of young artists, this Paul Bunyan simply seemed a fully achieved and superbly cast production that could not have been bettered – and might well have been less persuasive – with mature lead artists at the Coliseum.

Britten was frail in the last few years of his life and perhaps understandably lachrymose on occasion. He wept on hearing the news of Auden’s death, and wept again listening to that first radio broadcast of their youthful work – “I had quite forgotten what a strong piece it was”. In this splendid (and sold-out) production of a once abandoned and now resurrected work, in a once abandoned and now resurrected venue, its strength endures.

*****