Paul Bunyan

One of the most difficult achievements in any form of theatre is for a playwright or librettist to start out with an overt political or social message and manage to get it across without preaching to the audience. Invariably such efforts get hung up in telling us, rather than showing us, what the writer thinks is the correct way to perceive historical and/or current events. It matters not whether the message is progressive or regressive, only that dramatic action has been replaced by a droning narration or soliloquy.

If Central City Opera's production of Paul Bunyan proves anything, it shows that even extremely talented men, in this case composer Benjamin Britten and librettist W.H. Auden (yes, the poet), are not exempt from a dry, presentational approach.

Photo of Alison Trainer as Tiny and John McVeigh as Johnny Inkslinger
Alison Trainer as Tiny and
John McVeigh as Johnny Inkslinger
Photo: Mark Kiryluk
Even the famous children's tale of the super-sized lumberjack and his equally enormous blue ox, Babe, becomes mearly a premise for the composer and writer to explain how industrialization threatens our biosphere. It's not that they're wrong—the facts clearly indicate they're not—but that they have made such important information boring.

The presentation (it's labeled as an operetta, which, only technically speaking, it is), is devoid of drama, and the few details of Paul Bunyan's life that are provided don't even qualify as a summary. Instead we are offered the disembodied voice of the mythic axe wielder, since he's too big to appear on the same stage as normal people, and gobs of narrative that describe and analyze both the thin storyline and the relentless march of history.

Photo of John McVeigh as Johnny Inkslinger
John McVeigh as Johnny Inkslinger
Photo: Mark Kiryluk
The imitation folk songs created for the piece are so lacking in imagination that anyone who has ever read Walt Whitman or listened to Woody Guthrie has to wonder what Britten and Auden were thinking.

Why the opera company has chosen to offer this piece its regional premiere 66 years after it was written is baffling, but they do dress it up as well as possible. The heavily raked rolling stage is bathed in extraordinary lighting effects by David Jacques, recalling wheat and prairie grass waving in the breeze as shadows from clouds pass by. Alice Bristow's costumes are evocative of the period, though the punk influenced flowers are non sequitors. Ken Cazan and Terry Harper's scenery is playful and in tune with the rest of the creative design.

While parts of Britten's score are pleasant, and beautifully rendered by the Festival Orchestra under the direction of Steuart Bedford, they are unfortunately buried under a listless book.

However, despite the preachy nature of the narrative, it is instructive to see that the contempt which corporate America holds for our environment and individual rights was just as obvious in 1939 as it is today. Of course, Jefferson and Lincoln noted this long before, but, nevertheless, it's encouraging in today's heavily censored public arena to hear these reminders. Perhaps, as director Cazan says in his notes—" us from killing foreigners in order to gain precious natural materials and, in turn, being killed by them."—pacifists Britten and Auden's message is the best reason for staging Paul Bunyan.

Central City Opera's production of Paul Bunyan runs through August 6th in repertory with Giacomo Puccini's Madama Butterfly and Samuel Barber's Vanessa. 303-292-6700.

Bob Bows


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