Review: Paul Bunyan (Wilton's Music Hall)

ENO makes a strong case for this neglected operetta by Benjamin Britten and WH Auden

William Morgan as Hot Biscuit Slim and Rowan Pierce as Tiny in Paul Bunyan (ENO)
William Morgan as Hot Biscuit Slim and Rowan Pierce as Tiny in Paul Bunyan (ENO)
© Genevieve Girling

Did English National Opera get the venues mixed up when it chose two Britten operas to bookend the summer? Ghostly and claustrophobic, The Turn of the Screw seems tailor-made for Wilton's Music Hall while Paul Bunyan, the composer's bucolic, heavily populated operetta, could readily fill the Open Air Theatre with its rousing noise.

In the event the reverse decision was half-vindicated, for the Henry James ghost story cast a spell in the evening air at Regent's Park and has been one of the operatic events of the year. On the other hand, the rarely heard tale of a giant lumberjack who became a founding father of America barely fits inside crumbledown Wilton's and its week-long run has only been a sell-out because there are so few seats.

Paul Bunyan is a curio: a shapeless drama with an unseen hero (the titular giant is an offstage voice) and a car-crash of a libretto by WH Auden. The product of its composer's wartime sojourn in the US, the show predates Peter Grimes but was withdrawn by a chastened Britten soon after a disastrous premiere. Only when he unearthed it shortly before he died did he release it into the wild.

And wild it certainly is in Jamie Manton's inventive and resourceful production. The director takes his lead from Auden's text – much of it self-conscious verbiage for which the poet subsequently apologised – and serves up a riot of anachronistic ideas, for the most part well realised. All that's missing is a vein of emotional exhilaration.

The dynamic young conductor Matthew Kofi Waldren energises an ENO orchestra that's been splattered over the Wilton's walls in the quest to save space, and Camilla Clarke's economical designs make the best possible use of limited resources – although the lack of character definition means that Auden's cats, dog and geese appear confusingly human, while the creatives' obsession with Smeg fridges is just weird.

The storyline is neither here nor there, but tucked within the text are pearls that the young Britten set to some dizzyingly beautiful tunes. Paul Bunyan is closer to a musical than an opera and in this post-Sondheim age the score seems newly minted. It was well ahead of its time. The lament of Bunyan's daughter Tiny, "Mother O Mother", is a killer number, as is Hot Biscuit Slim's entrance song, "In fair days and in foul". But it's the chorus that has the lion's share, and ENO's choristers roar accordingly. Music of wonder, romance, slapstick, patter and blues – they get the lot and give it large.

While it may be understandable in this overly male-skewed work that ENO has replaced the narrator, a ballad singer, with a trio of women, something is lost in translation. Intrinsically excellent though they are, and through no fault of their own, the three singers' operatic timbres don't sit comfortably with the laconic material. On the other hand our two recent WhatsOnStage interviewees, tenor Elgan Llŷr Thomas as Johnny Inkslinger and Rowan Pierce as Tiny, turn in scorching performances as Johnny Inkslinger and Tiny respectively.

The rest of the ensemble cast is practically flawless and includes several meaty roles for members of the ENO Chorus. There are impeccably sung turns by Fflur Wyn as Fido, David Newman as an entertainingly stuttery Western Union Boy and Matthew Durkan as Hel Helson, the troubled foreman who in this pre-Oklahoma! show is Jud Fry to the charismatic Curly of William Morgan's Slim. Only Simon Russell Beale as Bunyan lacks presence, but that's because he's pre-recorded. Such a pity. A flesh-and-blood Paul would have helped add that missing spark.