It may have languished in the bottom drawer for decades after its 1941 premiere, but Britten's "Paul Bunyan" sure is a crowd-pleaser, making its neglect in a year of ubiquitous Britten celebration all the more puzzling. In director Will Kerley and conductor Peter Robinson's hands, this early stage work is an absolute treat and the perfect opportunity for a huge, and hugely-talented, British Youth Opera cast and creative team to mark the composer's centenary year, while showing what they can do.
Kerley and his designers, Jason Southgate (set) and David Howe (lighting), present some wonderful stage pictures that could grace any stage, presenting the story of pioneering new world folk with bags of wit and inventiveness. Stuffed full of American iconography, paying homage to Britten and Auden's own tribute to their adopted country, it even includes a placard-peeling Bob Dylan as Narrator (a lyrical Christopher Jacklin accompanied by Steven Joseph's guitar).
"Paul Bunyan" sees Britten at his most playful, with a score more suited to a Broadway theatre than the opera house. There are shades of Weill, Gershwin and Shostakovich at his most light-hearted and, while much of the score is not instantly recognisable as Britten, the chorus writing points clearly to what was to come with "Peter Grimes" just four years later.
A weakness of the work is arguably Auden's verse libretto, which is portentous and laboured and was to mark a crisis in the composer and librettist's relationship but any shortcomings in the book are overcome by Britten's unerring dramatic instinct.
Part of the fun of BYO productions is spotting the singers of the future and Samuel Smith has star quality in spadefuls as a gloomy Johnny Inkslinger, with Louise Kemeny a beautifully anguished Tiny, well-matched with Peter Kirk's boisterous Slim. Will Edelsten is excellent in the spoken role of Paul, presiding over the episodic proceedings, while Emily Vine's cute Fido and Dominick Felix's telegram boy stand out among the many cameo performances. But this is above all an ensemble project, with the succession of short turns providing ample showcasing opportunities for the whole cast.
A little more attention to word-pointing wouldn't go amiss, especially in the absence of surtitles. Smith's Inkslinger is a notable exception. Otherwise, the cast of 44 is drilled to perfection in one set-piece after another and the production gains in strength as the evening progresses. The Southbank Sinfonia provide a pleasing soundtrack with some of the composer's most melodic music.
BYO's future is threatened by a funding squeeze and patronage is required if it is to maintain its current standards. Details of how to help can be found at the company website: BYO. "Paul Bunyan" has two more performances (plus a cover performance) and is joined by Cimarosa's "The Secret Marriage" in the coming week.