Bearded adolescents in plaid shirts, sopranos disguised in mascot-esque cat costumes and a pre-recorded, omnipresent, convincingly American Stephen Fry are what to expect of the Welsh National Youth Opera’s production of Benjamin Britten’s Paul Bunyan, currently at the Wales Millennium Centre. The sprightly, young cast of what seemed like eighty-odd certainly injected some youthful joie de vivre into this operetta – if I can call it that – yet the dated humour and disjointed plot left the audience slightly bemused.
Britten and Auden collaborated on Paul Bunyan when they relocated to America in the 1940s due to their mutual pacifistic views. Inspired by the consumer capitalism that swamped America during this time, they went on to write this satirical, sardonic take on the American Dream using the eponymous folkloric character – a giant lumberjack called Paul Bunyan. Auden (of Four Weddings and a Funeral fame) targets plenty of minorities in his charmingly witty libretto – namely, the Swedish, whom he depicts as dithering idiots with names like Andy Anderson and Hel Helson. It’s odd that he didn’t compose their lines as simply, ‘hurdy-gurdy-purdy’. Come to think of it, this mirrors another nonchalantly racist comment in another of Britten’s operas: Billy Budd. In Billy Budd, one of the ship’s staff proclaims that he doesn’t like the French ‘with their hoppity-skippity ways’. So… That was a bit naughty, wasn’t it, Benjamin?
What Paul Bunyan lacks in plot and sense is made up for with the exceptional talent of the company. Elgan Llyr Thomas makes an impeccable Jonny Inkslinger; the independent wannabe novelist who arrives at Paul Bunyan’s logging camp in search of food. Ross Scanlon and Vanessa Bowers are clear rising talents vocally and the quintet of mentally-deficient Swedes is suitably amusing. The entire ensemble’s enthusiasm is worthy of admiration and Only Boys Aloud’s soaring voices pack some oomph into a previously oomph-less operetta.
Director Martin Constantine has tried his utmost to update the relevance of Paul Bunyan with the addition of a young boy watching the entire show on television in his bedroom. He is essentially being sold the American Dream through advertising and this political undertone the operetta now holds is especially profound today. A notable moment in the production is when Paul announces he is to leave and the entire company enters in what looks like army uniforms, making a thought-provoking statement on the effects of mass consumerism on our minds.
Structurally, it’s messy. Sudden arguments are littered hither and thither and a romantic interest is established without even so much as a solo aria proclaiming it. This is more the fault of Auden and Britten than anything else. When the operetta first opened, it was subjected to a tourbillion of vitriolic reviews. The music isn’t at all moving nor is it memorable which, I admit, isn’t peculiar for Britten (ooh, what am I like?!). However, if one were to look at it as a piece of intermittently humorous light entertainment with a modest political message at its heart, Paul Bunyan is worth seeing for the promising talent of our up-and-coming opera stars.
Paul Bunyan will be at the Wales Millenium Centre on 23rd and 24th August.