Is it a musical or something more profound? Benjamin Britten himself was uncertain, writing “operetta” at the head of the score and “opera” at the end.
The original 1941 audience was bemused. Advanced harmonies give way to folksy guitars; Auden’s libretto sparkles with extravagant wit but ends with a lament for lost innocence.
Save us “from those who say patriotism and mean persecution,” the chorus concludes, before carrying off - in this production by Liam Steel - freebies of spray paint, cosmetics and booze.
The piece was Britten and Auden’s vision of the American dream, written in the socially conscious tradition of Porgy and Bess that would lead to West Side Story.
Revised in 1976, it was one of the last of his works that the dying Britten heard, so the lines “The campfire embers are black and cold,” had a special poignancy.
“I hadn’t remembered it was such a strong piece,” he said. Indeed so, and it would be sad if this fine revival by ETO does not encourage more performances, particularly by the semi-professional groups for which it was intended.
Auden portrayed himself in the splendidly named Johnny Inkslinger, well performed by Mark Wilde, who enjoys the best number in the show – slipping in references to Cezanne, Keats, Tolstoy and Cretan temples – before going off to Hollywood for the money.
The scoring here – reflecting American high school bands – has no strings, but distinctive xylophone and celeste. Under the naïve, arching melodies, conductor Philip Sunderland held together the tricky rhythmic accompaniment beautifully.
The weak link was the mythically huge Paul Bunyan himself, spirit of America, who does not appear, but was represented, oddly, by a 12-foot ladder and spoken in a gentle voice rendered somewhat indistinct by the sound system.