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BRITTEN Paul Bunyan Royal Opera Chorus & Orchestra, Hickox   Chandos CHAN 9781(2) [63.29][47.02]
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Paul Bunyan
Johnny Inkslinger
Hot Biscuit Slim
Sam Sharkey
Ben Benny
Hel Helson
John Shears
Peter Coleman-Wright baritone
Kenneth Cranham speaker
Kurt Streit tenor
Susan Gritton soprano
Timothy Robinson tenor
Francis Egerton tenor
Graeme Broadbent baritone
Jeremy White bass
Roderick Earle bass
Lilian Watson soprano
Pamela Helen Stephen mezzo
Leah-Marion Jones mezzo

This is a belated first complete recording of Britten's American choral operetta, which the composer withdrew after its New York premiere in 1941. I have had mixed responses to it since its exhumation in the '70s, with a broadcast and eventual successful staging at Snape Maltings shortly before Britten died. see below

I have seen it twice, at Dulwich College and not long afterwards by the Royal Opera in exile. This recording comes from their revival at the rebuilt Sadlers Wells. I have reservations about it as a fully professional piece, and these remain having heard this quality recording. I enjoy quite a lot of the text and some of the music, but it is not out of Britten's top drawer, although a lot does shine through from time to time.

I remain convinced that it is best treated as a school show and can do no better than quote from my June 1996 review in Guide Magazine:

Performance at Dulwich

Dulwich College offered the coup of the first UK performances of Britten's Paul Bunyan by forces as originally envisaged by the composer. It was composed for American high schools during Benjamin Britten's period in New York as a war time fugitive with Peter Pears. W. H. Auden provided the libretto, based on the there familiar myth about a giant of phenomenal strength, a lumber-jack who single handedly fashioned North America. Drawing on Broadway musicals alongside Britten's own voice, misunderstood originally and a flop in USA, Paul Bunyan proved a triumph in May at Dulwich College, imaginatively staged in the Edward Alleyn Hall, a splendid modern venue with excellent acoustics. A multitude of schoolchildren directed by Michael Ashcroft and Peter Jolly, assisted by staff of the Music and Drama Departments, famous opera director Elijah Moshinsky and numerous well-wishers, sung, acted and played with style, huge commitment, unflagging energy and wit. Two cats smooching on top of a grand piano stole the show for their moment.

The libretto is sharp and interesting, charting pioneering achievement and ending with warnings about the darker side of modern American society. A special word for the compilers of the elegant programme book, packed with background information about this important rarity. An exhilarating theatrical experience.

This recording is produced with evident devotion and accompanied by a 160-page booklet containing numerous photos from the Royal Opera production. But I persist in finding the chorus being trees, and solo singers geese and animals rather twee here and sometimes a little embarrassing (though I have no such problems in Ravel or Janacek!) and the disembodied voice of the eponymous giant is just too ordinary for me. Susan Gritton as Paul Bunyan's daughter Tiny sings sweetly, and all the characters are well taken, if sometimes over-loud for home listening. Full orchestra really has nothing over the school stage band, and does not make up for the lack of intimacy, whether in the theatre or at home.

There will be quite other opinions, and this significant recorded addition to the Britten canon should be reviewed also by someone else, who might approach it more open-mindedly. Hear it for yourself, and do not be put off by my cool rating at


Peter Grahame Woolf

Simon Foster has reminded us that Virgin did the premiere recording in 1988


Peter Grahame Woolf

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