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Summer Opera: Paul Bunyan

Britten, Paul Bunyan, Central City Opera, 2005The last Britten opera production I am going to write about this summer, I think, is Paul Bunyan at Central City Opera, which ended on August 6. George Loomis was there to review it (Paul Bunyan, Central City Opera, Denver, August 3) for the London Financial Times:

Before there was Glimmerglass or St Louis or even Santa Fe, there was Central City, a haven for summertime opera in America since 1932. The opera house in this quaint, former mining town near Denver is older still, built for music-loving Welsh and Cornish miners in the 1870s. With its charming trompe l’oeil decor and 756 seats – Beverly Sills sang Aïda here – it offers further evidence that the economics of opera in America do not mandate gargantuan spaces. [...]

Richard Cross speaks Paul’s lines with sonorous expression, and Marcus DeLoach is an articulate Ballad Singer, flying in on a rocking chair. The clear-voiced soprano Alison Trainer, as Paul’s daughter Tiny, and the reliable tenor Jason Switzer, as Hot Biscuit Slim, make a fine pair of lovers. And the excellent tenor John McVeigh shines in a delightful comic love song for Johnny Inkslinger, which is heard (thanks to Bedford) for the first time since the 1941 premiere – a tour de force of verbal athleticism from the librettist W.H. Auden.
Kyle MacMillan, Big-hearted "Bunyan" rollicking good time (Denver Post, July 21):
Start with a group of folk tunes, throw in some rollicking Broadway numbers and a tongue-twisting song that would have made Gilbert and Sullivan proud and you begin to get some idea of Benjamin Britten's rarely seen "Paul Bunyan." Britten is considered one of the greatest English-language opera composers of all time, but this 2 1/2-hour work isn't really an opera at all. Instead, it is a daring, distinctive if undeniably quirky musical-theater hybrid. While even the biggest fans of this work would probably agree it is not a masterpiece, especially when compared to some of the composer's later operas that do hold that honor, there is still an enormous amount to admire and enjoy. [...]

This two-act work is essentially a series of vignettes, with an omnipresent cowboy crooner, who arrives magically via a flying rocking chair, providing a narrative through line and essential background on Bunyan via his periodic folk songs. A group of lumberjacks supply a light, Broadway-like component of the piece, with rollicking ensemble scenes. One occurs at their entrance when the heavy-footed lugs make a hilarious attempt at a dance number with chorus-line kicks.
Marc Shulgold, Opera can do better than 'Bunyan' (Rocky Mountain News, July 18):
There is a very good excuse for Central City Opera to stage Paul Bunyan, Benjamin Britten's neglected "operetta," which opened Saturday at the Opera House. Each summer, the company invites a boatload of bright young apprentice singers, all hoping for some quality stage experience. This season's other two offerings provide few opportunities, but Bunyan is another story: First performed in 1941 by a collegiate cast at Columbia, it's the operatic equivalent of a chirpy, over-populated Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney summer-camp show. [...]

Nothing personal against Britten, who was haunted by scathing critical reaction at the premiere. And certainly no slap at the brilliant poet W.H. Auden, who fashioned the rhyming libretto. But this is pretty lame stuff – dated, superficial, unfocused and only intermittently engrossing. There are moments of wit and charm along with some occasionally lovely musical episodes (although they're surprisingly derivative and un-Brittenish). And Ken Cazan's neatly paced direction does keep interest alive. Still, there's got to be something out there better than this thing.
Since one of the other operas Central City did this season was Vanessa (see my post on August 3), they may win the prize this year for the most daring summer programming (the third opera of three was Madama Butterfly). It's inevitable, I suppose, that some critics (and, one presumes, audience members) will not be pleased. However, I'm sure that just as many people will question conservative programming, too, so bring on the interesting operas! Central City Opera has announced that its 2006 season, from June 24 to August 6, will include productions of Douglas Moore's The Ballad of Baby Doe (premiered at Central City Opera in 1956), Mozart's Don Giovanni, and Claudio Monteverdi's L'Incoronazione di Poppea. Baby Doe and Baroque opera, too? Ionarts hereby resolves to try to go there next summer.

Actually, the Web site of the Britten-Pears Foundation, which keeps track of performances of Britten's music, notes even more productions this summer. Both Munich and London are staging Billy Budd, and Olivier Py is directing a rare production of Curlew River at the Edinburgh International Festival (August 15 to 19). The libretto is based on the Noh play Sumidagawa (The Madwoman at the Sumida River), which is also being staged in Edinburgh this year.

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