Myths Over America

The minor works of a genius are often more rewarding than the best that lesser mortals can bring. In the case of Paul Bunyan, the unclassifiable musical entertainment that had its South Florida premiere Saturday night at the Miami-Dade Auditorium, the rewards are actually double: This is the work of not one but two young gay geniuses -- Benjamin Britten and W.H. Auden. It is by no means a perfect work, but its challenges are timely, its pleasures immense.

Paul Bunyan is a liberal fantasy about America dreamed up by two brash outsiders with equal doses of affection and concern. The 1941 score has sublime choral numbers, cute but never cutesy characterizations, musical passages foreshadowing the operatic master that Britten shortly would become in Peter Grimes, as well as stanza after luminous stanza that prove Auden was Auden from the start. The piece boasts a chorus of immigrant loggers who sing laughingly that "we're handsome, free, and gay," cavorts with panache through one of our nation's founding myths, and then ends on a dark cautionary note that is improbably moving. The finale is a stunning literary and musical feat, at least as accessible as anything in the Brecht-Weill canon, and innocent of the topical specificity that often dates political works. It is also gorgeous.

After the logging is done, the banjos are broken, the woods are cut down, and the young have grown old, the cast sings, "From a Pressure Group that says I am the Constitution / From those who say Patriotism and mean Persecution / From a Tolerance that is really inertia and disillusion: / Save animals and men." This is strong and beautiful stuff, daring when Auden wrote it and Britten set it to music, uncannily relevant to Paul Bunyan's homeland today. And yet it would be wrong to think of Paul Bunyan as didactic. Actually is it deeply serious, but mainly it is sweet. It was written for teenagers, premiered at Columbia University in 1941, and -- for all its thoroughly American themes -- it is a close cousin not to the Broadway musical but to the British panto, stopping just short of raucous audience participation. It has singing trees, dogs, and cats. Its characters include the giant Paul Bunyan (an unseen presence represented by a booming voice) as well as his lovely daughter Tiny and a large cast with a bunch of secondary leads. These include Hot Biscuit Slim, a hot cowboy who can also bake cookies, and Bunyan's bookkeeper Johnny Inkslinger (perhaps the most obviously Brechtian character, albeit impeccably Audean in his diction). The music is eclectic, and there is frankly too much filler. The words, however, are perfect. And the opera as a whole is not just fascinating but accessible, something both Britten and Auden would remain throughout their lives.

The opera begins in the primeval forest, with Longfellow's murmuring pines now made to sing by Auden. The old trees are "green, alive, glad to be / And our proper places know: / We like life to be slow." Young trees answer, "No, no, no / We do not want life to be slow" and are shouted down as "Reds" by the older firs. And so life starts.

In this ravishing production designed by Paul Steinberg, with costumes by Constance Hoffman and stage direction by Mark Lamos, the trees are represented by a chorus in blue rocking chairs downstage, hugging saplings in their laps. Later, as people enter the picture, the designs are at once bold and primitive, a sort of postmodern reduction of what Oliver Smith created for Agnes de Mille, a faux naive vision of innocence in an imagined open frontier. Of course, there was never anything either naive or insincere about Britten's fascination with innocence. Paul Bunyan was just the start.

Lamos's production was created originally for the Glimmerglass Opera and subsequently enjoyed great success at the New York City Opera in Lincoln Center. On its way to the Florida Grand Opera, some of the very clever stage direction seems to have been reduced to just plain blocking: You go here, you do this, that sort of thing. The director's intentions are almost always clear, but the execution often sabotages them. It is famously difficult to get an opera chorus to act, much less to act cute. And much of the cast at Miami-Dade Auditorium wanted closer direction, from a Western Union boy whose lame vaudeville shtick did not razzle or dazzle to a line of loggers in flannel that needed to be more over the top to really work.

That said, there were standouts on opening night. Chad Johnson clearly enjoyed his star turn as Hot Biscuit Slim, soared musically, relished the words, and more than justified the cowboy's getting the girl. In the thankless role of Tiny, Robin Crouse did not suggest new reasons for gratitude, but Brian Anderson as Johnny Inkslinger did, and he also made the most of some of Britten's most touching passages. The folksy, guitar-strumming narrator -- amplified, incidentally -- found a winning interpreter in Ray Fellman. In the crucial speaking role of the giant Paul Bunyan, whose voice thunders over the cast as all face the audience in wonder, the Florida Grand Opera has brought in one of the great baritones of all time. Coaxed out of retirement for this gig, Thomas Stewart could have used a director's coaching to better distinguish Bunyan's mythical pronouncements from his everyday conversations with the loggers. But it was sheer joy to listen to this voice bring Auden's poetry to life -- and a little distance from the text is not something the elegant poet would have disdained.

No reservations about the conducting: Stewart Robertson clearly is at home in Britten and should be required by law to bring us one of his operas every season. The Florida Grand Opera Orchestra -- save for the odd brass blooper once in a while -- was resplendent.

Paul Bunyan on CD

Premiered in 1941 and promptly abandoned by its creators, Paul Bunyan was not reprised on stage until the Seventies, shortly before the composer's death, and was recorded commercially for the first time only in 1988. That splendid recording is an appropriately all-American affair with Philip Brunelle conducting the soloists, chorus, and orchestra of Minnesota's Plymouth Music Series (Virgin Classics, two CDs). Britten's compatriots (joined by a select group of young American singers) got around to the studio in 1996, with the forces of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, conducted by Richard Hickox (Chandos-Royal Opera, two CDs). There is much to recommend in either version, frankly, with the casts of both clearly having a swell time with Britten's youthful romp through the founding myths of his briefly adopted country.

Brunelle's cast often has the edge in their spontaneity -- a real virtue in the extended choral scenes. The Virgin sound engineering is also a tad brighter and clearer than Chandos's. Still, Hickox's Kurt Streit as Johnny Inkslinger wipes the floor with Brunelle's Dan Dressen; Susan Gritton is a musically superior Tiny; the small roles are as carefully delineated as one would expect from a recording that stems from a London production directed by Elijah Moshinsky.

The Narrator is rambunctious in both: Pop Wagner for Brunelle, Peter Coleman-Wright for Hickox. The speaking role of Paul Bunyan, unseen on stage but especially important in an audio recording, also is well taken on CD by James Lawless and Kenneth Cranham -- though it must be said that neither is as commanding or touching as the great Thomas Stewart, who has been coaxed out of retirement for the Florida Grand Opera's production. Leave it to a great Wotan to bring out the melancholy grandeur of the gentle American giant. -- Octavio Roca

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