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King Priam/Paul Bunyan - English Touring Opera - Linbury Studio, 15/19 February 2014

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English Touring Opera's spring programme is a bold one. Alongside the perennial The Magic Flute, they've chosen to present a pair of works so rarely shown that even seasoned opera buffs may never have caught a live performance. Both are mid-20th century, both by British composers, and neither satisfies the popular preconceptions about opera as the province of swooning divas and sobbing tenors.

It is de rigueur in opera circles to pronounce Michael Tippett's 1962 King Priam worthy but heavy going, the operatic equivalent of eating your alfalfa sprouts. It's certainly not fluffy fare, but any regular theatregoer will recognise Tippett's Brechtian-framed take on the Trojan War for the ambitious piece of drama it is, more akin to Euripides than Verdi.

Tippett was a better composer than lyricist and the lean and sparing score, led with assurance by Michael Rosewell,  tells the story with a clarity sometimes lacking in his self-penned libretto. James Conway's production matches its starkness. There is no room for sentiment in this powerful tale of fate and family. Anna Fleischle's bold bone-and-feather designs are both primitive and timeless.

As the troubled Priam, wrestling with the responsibilities of leadership and the bonds of fatherhood, Roderick Earle is magnificent. The rest of the cast are terrific too, with the acting skills as well as the voices to inhabit Tippett's theatrical world.

What a contrast Paul Bunyan is. The closest Britten ever got to writing a musical, this 1941 effort inhabits that same strange interworld as Bernstein's Candide and Sondheim's Sweeney Todd. Ostensibly a series of yarns spun around the mythical American frontiersman Paul Bunyan, it turns out to be a none too reverential examination of the American Way. No wonder the early (American) audiences loathed it.

W.H. Auden's quirky libretto, almost too clever for its own good, was considered to be one of the work's problems. Auden even apologised to Britten later for burdening him with it. But heard today, with post-Sondheim ears, its wit and wordplay seems years ahead of its time. It is now evident as one of the highlights, along with Britten's masterful facility in turning idioms as varied as folk and blues into identifiably 'Brittenesque' numbers.

Is an opera or a musical though?  In ETO's hands, it tends towards the latter. All the singers are opera-trained, but they sing in an old-fashioned musical style - that is, more Hollywood classic than modern Broadway belter, complete with a variety of American accents.  The cast are all so superb it seems wrong to single any out for praise, but it was a special moment when Caryl Hughes punctuated the comic mayhem with the touching aria ‘Mother, O Mother’. Mark Wilde’s guitar-strumming Johnny Inkslinger and Abigail Kelly as the coloratura soprano dog caught eye and ear too.

Liam Steel's highly detailed production sets the whole thing in a log cabin. The many roles (the work was originally written for students) are compacted into a still-extensive cast of lumberjacks and their assorted hangers-on. If there's one problem with the production it's that Anna Fleischle single dark set, so stark and fitting in King Priam, sometimes seems cramped and claustrophobic in this character-packed comedy.

King Priam trailer: