British Youth Opera – Britten’s Paul Bunyan [Peacock Theatre]

Paul Bunyan – operetta in a Prologue and Two Acts to a libretto by W. H. Auden

Four young trees – Meinir Wyn Roberts, Aimee Toshney, Dominic Walsh & Adam Player
Three wild geese – Vivien Conacher, Hanna-Liisa Kirchin & Barbara Cole Walton
Narrator – Christopher Jacklin
Voice of Paul Bunyan – Will Edelsten
Lumberjacks – Chris Childs Santos, James Corrigan & Ed Harrison
Andy Anderson – Richard Bignall
Pete Peterson – Andrew Brown
Jen Jenson – Ashley Mercer
Cross Crosshauslen – Samuel Oram
Western Union Boy – Dominick Felix
Hel Helson – Timothy Connor
Sam Sharkey – Alex Aldren
Ben Benny – Oskar Palmblad
Johnny Inkslinger – Samuel Smith
Fido – Emily Vine
Moppet – Grace Durham
Poppet – Ayaka Tanimoto
Quartet of the Defeated – Luke Sinclair, Stefan Berkieta, Sally Dodds & Jan Capinski
Slim – Peter Kirk
Tiny – Louise Kemeny
John Shears – Daniel Hawkins
Second solo farmer – Alistair Ollerenshaw
Heron – Annabella Ellis
Moon – Claire Barton
Wind – Georgia Mae Bishop
Beetle – Emily Kyte
Squirrel – Catriona Hewitson
Four Cronies – Hamish Mackay, Ashley Mercer, Samuel Oram & Stefan Berkieta
Christmas soloists – Adam Temple-Smith, Craig Jackson & Stefan Berkieta

Southbank Sinfonia
Peter Robinson

William Kerley – Director
Jason Southgate – Designer
David Howe – Lighting designer
Mandy Demetrious – Movement director

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 13 September, 2013
Venue: Sadler’s Wells Peacock Theatre, Portugal Street, Holborn, London WC2

Hot Biscuit Slim and the Cats: Grace Durham (Moppet), Peter Kirk (Hot Biscuit Slim), Ayaka Tanimoto (Poppet) and Emily Vine (Fido) in BYO's Paul Bunyan. Photograph: Clive Barda / ArenaPALIt was inevitable in Britten’s centenary year that youth opera groups would tackle Paul Bunyan, the composer and W. H. Auden’s show based on the mythic giant lumberjack of American folklore, the free spirit driving the American Dream, and an ideal that indigenous artists have been as keen to dismantle as the two British artists were to assert. There was a WNO youth production last month, and now this one from British Youth opera, a showcase for students at music colleges.

Paul Bunyan was Britten’s first stage work, written in 1941, when he, Auden and Peter Pears were in self-imposed exile in the States. Critically, it wasn’t a success, and the older the libretto gets the more arch and patronising it seems. After 1941, the work had to wait more that 30 years to be resurrected and revised, and Auden himself acknowledged that it hadn’t done Britten any favours.

Yet, while you can play an agreeable game of spot the influence – Copland, Stravinsky, Gilbert & Sullivan, blues, folk, Broadway, even a subliminal flavour of Janáček (whose music Britten probably hadn’t heard at the time) – the score is abundantly fresh, inventive and full of catchy tunes.It was these aspects that William Kerley’s production plays up, along with Jason Southgate’s cartoonish designs, the continent’s soon-to-be-felled trees represented by a forest of brooms, which rather overdid cute, fussy detail. Britten and Auden may have had their eye of Broadway, but this staging is very much in the village-hall area, writ large for the Peacock Theatre’s big, well-equipped stage. The main directorial decision was having Bunyan himself, conceived by Britten as an unseen, spoken role, played by the neat, pipe-smoking figure of Will Edelsten, delivering his lines from a box near the stage, which thoroughly debunked the idea of proto-logger Bunyan as tall as the Empire State Building, and he gave a rather republican cosiness to the colonising myth.

Chorus of Old Trees in BYO's Paul Bunyan. Photograph: Clive Barda / ArenaPALOriginally described as a “choral operetta”, the chorus sang out magnificently in the atmospheric ‘Prologue’, and its big numbers gave the second Act some much-needed shape. Otherwise it was down to the 44 listed individual singers to give the series of vignettes vitality and bite, and they went for them with a will. Samuel Smith, an open-voiced, good-looking tenor, was secure in the key role of Johnny Inkslinger, Paul Bunyan’s right-hand man in the loggers’ camp, and his song about thwarted artistic aspiration made its mark. The Narrator’s three ballads, with fine, idiomatic guitar accompaniments, were breezily sung by Christopher Jacklin, who had a nice line in folk-music/wild west send-up.Another tenor, Peter Kirk, was appealingly fresh-voiced and -faced as Slim, and Timothy Connors was a stalwart Helson, the Swedish foreman, and terrific in his nightmare scene (an eerie premonition of the dream sequence in Oklahoma!). As the Western Union Boy, Dominick Felix made the most of ‘A telegram, a telegram’, a gift.

In a work dominated by lumberjacks, there aren’t many female roles – there’s Bunyan’s normal-sized daughter Tiny (who marries Slim and moves to New York), sweetly played and sung by Louise Kemeny, and there’s a trio of two cats and a dog, Fido, a rare coloratura breed brilliantly sung and graphically acted by Emily Vine. With all these roles’ brief moments in the limelight, it was a bit like a particularly frenetic episode of Glee, and as tightly directed, and they successfully drew attention away from the work’s spasmodic action. Peter Robinson (BYO’s artistic director) was adept at keeping all the stylistic balls in the air, and the Southbank Sinfonia revelled in Britten’s brilliant scoring.

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