Britten’s Paul Bunyan staged by the ETO

Coming to Britten’s Paul Bunyan for the first time, I was unsure what to expect. A musical? An operetta? A juvenile opera score? What I saw and heard with English Touring Opera’s current production was certainly an agreeable surprise. The score while melodic in the Broadway vein contains intricacies and inventiveness, thus defying easy categorisation. And, thanks to the side titles, we could relish to the full Auden’s witty, intelligent libretto. The themes of the piece, the spirit of pioneering America, the subduing of nature, and individuals aspiring towards a better future through cooperative venture, may have been inspired by the ideals of Roosevelt’s New Deal programme. But without a clear plot – during the interval the lady behind me complained that she kept waiting for something to happen – it is not easy to stage convincingly. However by creating a series of tableaux which conveyed images of the life of the pioneers, sometimes realistic, sometimes allegorical, sometimes stylised, Liam Steel the director brilliantly caught the essence of the work. A well-balanced cast had been assembled, singing, speaking and moving idiomatically and with conviction. I would pick out for special mention Mark Wilde as the Inkslinger and Wyn Pencarren as Hel Henson. ¬†Philip Sunderland was the adroit conductor. A most enjoyable and, yes, also a moving performance.