This operetta was the result of a collaboration between the composer Benjamin Britten and the poet W H Auden when both men were living in self-imposed exile in the US.
Although Britten went on to establish a reputation as an opera composer, "Paul Bunyan" was to be his one and only excursion into the world of operetta. Perhaps he was put off by the largely negative reviews of the piece at its first performance in 1941 and temperamentally he was not attracted by the musical and dramatic limitations of the form. Interestingly though it is one of Britten's most melodically appealing scores.
That two English artists should choose as their subject the (literally) larger-than-life character of the American lumberjack Paul Bunyan may seem, at first blush, an unusual choice. But both Auden and Britten had been greatly uplifted by their experience of life in the US and, in Auden's libretto, the character of Bunyan becomes the embodiment of the American spirit - optimistic, benevolent, understanding, a good leader. The story of what happens to him and his lumberjack companions becomes in this piece the story of the development of American society.
This emphasis on the place of collective experience is borne out by the general tone (which is upbeat and comic) and the pace of the narrative (which is is fast and includes a cast of 31 characters). Britten further emphasised this point by calling the piece a 'choral operetta' thereby subverting the usual hierarchy of soloists and chorus. This emphasis on the many doesn't allow much room for character nuance and it is here that the score comes into its own. By skillful use of numerous musical styles, Britten crafts a score of great variety to match the tone of Auden's lyrics. For example, there is the stand-out and ominously titled 'Quartet of the Defeated' (a blues number) or the Cooks' Duet which satirically employs references to Italian opera. The major events in Bunyan's life are narrated in a series of folksong ballads.
This recording is taken from the Royal Opera House production of 1999. The ensemble singing is well-controlled with strong solo voices and well-articulated words. Of the few solo parts that there are in the work, particular credit goes to Kurt Streit as Johnny Inkslinger and to Susan Gritton as Tiny, Bunyan's daughter. Their respective solo numbers at the end of Act 1 are sung with great sensitivity.
Ironically it is the one non-singing role in the work, that of the eponymous hero, that provides the emotional centre for this recording. Kenneth Cranham, as the voice of Paul Bunyan, is totally convincing - he endows Bunyan with a natural authority tempered with a fatherly insight and care for his companions. Cranham's delivery of Auden's more meditative and more obviously poetic verse is one of the delights of this recording.
Although 'live' recordings may not be to everyone's taste, the benefit here is that you are able to experience the uninterrupted sweep of the drama as it moves between song and spoken word. And, since the break between musical numbers is quite short, the musical flow is largely unbroken. The occasional thump or clatter as a result of some stage business or some audience applause at the end of a number is an occasional reminder that this is not a studio recording but the quality of the recording has not been compromised: there is a sensitive balance between the orchestra and the singers.
All in all, there is much to relish and enjoy in this recording.