On April 16th, the New England Conservatory presented the third of its four performances of Benjamin Britten’s opera-comedy Paul Bunyan in Boston’s Paramount Theater. Other than being uncomfortably warm, the acoustically well-balanced venue allowed for a delightful and well-rounded delivery of this seldom-heard work.
Written in 1941, Paul Bunyan is Britten’s first work of music-theater and, in many ways, his most unusual. The librettist, poet W. H. Auden, took a brilliantly balanced fable-as-metaphor approach to the work, enriching the story with a little irony and a lot of social commentary. Still, it is a less weighty and more narratively direct libretto than any Britten would set thereafter. It is also the only one that is structured and delivered like an operetta (which is what composer and author properly called it), that is, an accessible “numbers” piece, comic, with spoken dialog. The work also represents Britten’s one true attempt at capturing the musical essence of “Americana,” complete with pseudo hoe-downs and guitar-and-fiddle ballad narration. Nonetheless, there is plenty in the work that is signature Britten: colorful and evocative instrumentation, tertiary harmonies with ever-shifting modalities, novel voice-type casting, intricately accessible choral writing, and simple yet potent melodies and rhythms.
The challenge for performers is to maneuver the course between the directness of light opera and the multi-layered richness of more serious fare that Britten and Auden lay out so beautifully. By and large, the NEC performers met that challenge with success. The young singer-actors were clearly all very comfortable with the parts and threw themselves into their roles with gusto. All had fine voices and solid technique, most notably the free and easy tenor of Davis Charles Tay as soup-chef Sam Sharkey; the bold, sonorous baritone of Leroy Davis both as one of the happy Swedes and one of the Sad Defeated; the gorgeously clear and colorful tenor of Michael Kuhn as the (more or less) romantic lead Biscuit Slim; and the startlingly powerful and rich counter-tenor of Tai Oney as Number 2 of the Goose-Trio. However, one of the largest steps into mastery that young singers need to take is the one from being a singer who is acting a character to a singer who can actually be the character. The one performer who stood head and shoulders (both literally and figuratively) above the others in this regard was bass-baritone Daniel Brevik as Hel Helson. Of all the characters in the work, Helson has the longest developmental trajectory; yet he spends most of it either standing and watching or sitting and brooding, both in silence. When he does sing, it is generally short, powerful phrases full of simple and forceful emotion. Brevik did a wonderful job of standing, sitting, being silent, and especially singing, all with the acting skills of someone who truly inhabits his character, as well as a magnificently ringing voice. It would not be surprising if, a decade or so from now, this artist appears on stages as a painfully tragic Wotan or a woefully lecherous Ochs von Lerchenau.
As to Paul Bunyan himself, as an even larger than larger-than-life hero, he could never be convincingly portrayed on stage. One of Britten and Auden’s strokes of dramatic genius was solving this problem by writing him as a disembodied spoken voice. In this production, that role fell to James Maddalena, and as one of the finest professional singers of 20th-century literature, his voice is naturally strong and clear. However, Bunyan is a North American, rural folk-hero whose vocal quality should be more mountain story-teller than stage narrator. It seemed a lost opportunity not to cast someone with a grittier, more home-spun speaking style, especially since the part was amplified so that projection would not have been an issue. Nonetheless, Maddalena’s delivery had the firm presence that is required by the character.
James Robinson’s stage design was appropriately minimalist, with evocative lighting, colorful, no-nonsense costumes, simple props, and a couple of trees whose exaggerated construction gave them the look of visual stand-ins for the title character. The ceiling was somewhat confusing; perhaps intended to represent a multi-colored outdoor sky, it looked more like early-‘70s bathroom tile. On the other hand, the choice of using simple masks on sticks held by the singers to suggest characters such as trees and animals added much to the authentic rural, tale-spinning atmosphere to the production.
The performance was led by conductor Stephen Lord, who struck a near-perfect balance between depth and light-heartedness and held cast and orchestra together with skill and fine musicality. Only on occasion did the tempi seem a bit too hurried for both diction and the easy back-porch flavor of the work. Overall, though, cast and crew produced a very convincing and entertaining performance if this rare and happy work.
Tom Schnauber is a Boston-based composer and is currently serving as chair of the Performance Arts Department at Emmanuel College. He holds a Ph.D. in composition and Theory from the University of Michigan.