The season, day by dayback to calendar
Operetta in 2 acts and a prologue, op.17
Libretto by W.H. Auden
First performed May 5th 1941, Columbia University, New York
Sung in English with German surtitles
Duration: ca. 2 hrs 30 mins - including one interval
It is hard to imagine a more American work – about a legend created to advertise an American timber business - Paul Bunyan, a giant lumberjack who travelled around the country with a blue ox called Babe leaving phenomena like the Grand Canyon in their wake. Wystan Hugh Auden's libretto portrays the coming of age of a pioneering community of people and animals which, with Benjamin Britten's music, develops into a profoundly deep analysis of the New World. As Paul Bunyan sums up in his ambiguous concluding litany: »America is what you choose to make of it.«
Britten composed an suitably jolly, carefree score with ingenuous melodies. In trying to find an American form of expression he playfully brought together diverse national stylistic characteristics, bringing to mind other great composers like Aaron Copland, George Gershwin and Kurt Weill. A very clear cultural reference are the ballad like interludes in which a narrator accompanys himself, country style, on a guitar. An interesting aspect, when one thinks of Britten's later compositions, is that he incorporated Far Eastern sounds for the first time - in the prologue – when, gamelan-like, the announcement of the birth of the mythical hero is described.
The work was left in a drawer after the not very successful first performance in New York in 1941. It was more than thirty years later that it's true potential was recognised after parts of the work were enthusiastically received in Aldeburgh. The composer started work again on his long undervalued operetta for a staging in 1975. And now, more than forty years later, this rarity is being performed in Frankfurt for the first time.
Prologue 3 wild geese tell the trees about the birth of Paul Bunyan, which will change the way of the world. Act 1 Paul Bunyan recruits men from the »old world« as lumberjacks to help establish a new America. At the King of Sweden's bidding, Paul Bunyan appoints the strong, but monosyllabic Hel Helson as foreman. Johnny Inkslinger, who only reluctantly takes on the job because of a lack of other means to earn a living, is made book-keeper. Trouble soon starts brewing among the lumberjacks: Hel Helson starts keeping himself to himself, Johnny Inkslinger dreams of a life as an intellectual and the two cooks Sam Sharkey and Ben Benny incur the camp's displeasure with their monotonous menu – which consists entirely of beans and soup. They are replaced by a newcomer, the cowboy Hot Biscuit Slim. He is helped out by Paul Bunyan's daughter Tiny, who joined the pioneers with her father after the death of her mother. Act 2 While Paul Bunyan initiates the next stage of development, encouraging some of the pioneers – led by John Shears – to become farmers, Hel Helson, driven by ambition and self doubt, allows himself to be goaded into challenging Paul Bunyan to a fight. Hel Helson loses, and makes peace with the victor. New futures open up during the christmas party: Tiny and Slim will live in New York as a married couple, Hel Helson plans to join the government in Washington and Johnny Inkslinger is going to accept invitation to go to Hollywood. Paul Bunyan takes his leave from the Pioneers, appealing to them to maintain societal responsibility and guard freedom. Meanwhile, the cats Moppet and Poppet and dog Fido begin a litany of the dangers a free society could bring …