Based on the story of the eponymous American folklore hero and inspired by his time in the United States, Paul Bunyan was Benjamin Britten’s first operatic work. It premiered at Columbia University, New York, in 1941 to largely negative reviews and today it remains one of Britten’s least performed works.
The story is really quite surreal, with singing Swedish lumberjacks, talking trees, geese, dogs and cats, and Paul himself, a superhuman giant with a huge blue ox called Babe as a companion. The music incorporates a variety of musical styles, including blues, American folk, country and western and Broadway, as well as spoken word. Paul Bunyan and a Narrator are entirely spoken and remain off stage.
Only two commercial recording exist and this one, a 1988 studio recording from the Plymouth Music Series, is considered definitive. It’s conducted by American Philip Brunelle and stars James Lawless as the eponymous hero, Elisabeth Comeaux Nelson as his daughter and Dan Dressen as Johnny Inkslinger.
Nelson particularly has an excellent, rich voice. But really this production isn’t about arias and soloists but instead the ensembles. For a recording that’s now more than 30 years old, the sound reproduction is good. It zips along, with sharp rhythms and a tight, bright ensemble.
One of the great things about owning the CD is that it comes with the full libretto (in English and German), cast biographies and a conductor’s note, as well as an explanatory essay. Even though Paul Bunyan is sung in English it’s still worth reading the libretto and I would recommend listening to the whole thing first without the book and then a second time reading along – it really does add to your understanding of what is quite a challenging opera.
• Price: £19.99
• Format: Audio CD, two disks
• Tracks: 33 (22 on disk 1, 11 on disk 2)
• Run time: 112 minutes (64 minutes disk 1, 48 minutes disk 2)
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Paul Bunyan divides opera fans and it’s easy to see why it’s little performed, but this is as good an introduction to the piece as you’re likely to find.