This spring’s main opera production from UoT Opera is Britten’s Paul Bunyan. It is a really peculiar work. The libretto is by WH Auden and is, well, weird. It mixes up the (apparently) profound with the absurd and the downright silly. There’s a Swedish lumberjack fish slapping dance, talking cats and dogs, trees that aspire to be product and a philosophical accountant (*). There are also countless pronouncements from the off stage voice of Bunyan along the lines of the closing:
“Where the night becomes the day, Where the dream becomes the fact, I am the Eternal guest, I am Way, I am Act“
Walt Whitman meets Dr. Seuss meets a lot of drugs? One of those 1970s English public schoolboy prog rock bands?
The music too is eclectic. It was written for a student production at Columbia. Commissioning a new musical/operetta for a cast of thousands of Ivy Leaguers seems to have been part of American haut bourgeois culture before WW2. So much of the vocal music is, by design, undemanding and the dialogue is spoken. There is a ballad singer (with guitar accompaniment), other numbers that sound straight out of John Gay and some Gilbert and Sullivan pastiche. There are also quite sophisticated choruses and orchestral writing that could only be Britten and looks forward to the later operas. Eclectic really scarcely begins to describe it.
So how does one approach staging such a work
So how does one approach staging this curious piece? Michael Patrick Albano takes it pretty much at face value, as one might expect. He uses the attractive sets of Fred Peruzza and the colourful costumes of Lisa Magill to create stage pictures which are never less than pretty and sometimes quite striking but the overall approach is mostly quite restrained. (Fish slapping dance aside. Surely Anna Theodakis is familiar with that Monty Python sketch).
The performances too are mostly quite restrained but effective. Daevyd Pepper as the book keeper Johnny Inkslinger and Nicholas Borg as the off stage voice of Bunyan carry the narrative with clarity of purpose. Dann Mitton makes an appealing narrrator, singing his simple strophic narrative interludes clearly and plainly rather as if the Ballad Singer from Dreigroschenoper had been cleaned up, transported to the American frontier and given a trash panda hat. Conor Murphy and Danika Loren are the romantic interest as Tiny and Slim. Both are just fine but clearly capable of much bigger things. The main comic interest is the Swedish foreman Hel Helson, sung and acted with some panache by Max van Wyck. Around the framework of these principal characters are arranged many quartets and trios; Swedes, down and outs, trees, cats and dogs, geese and so on. Sandra Horst holds all this together from the podium and the orchestra sounds really good when it has to.
All in all it’s quite enjoyable but perhaps, for me, a bit of an emotional come down after The Devil Inside the previous evening. There are two more performances at The MacMillan Theatre. Tonight at 7.30pm you can see it with a rather different cast or you can catch the cat described here on Sunday afternoon.
(*)The dates make it highly improbable that any member of the Monty Python team had seen the piece before writing I’ a lumberjack or I want to be a lion tamer so it must count as one the stragest pieces of parallel artistic evolution ever.
Photo credit: Richard Lu