People who write words for opera end to tell you it’s a thankless task. The text is always secondary to the music, which invariably drowns it. And as WH Auden said, words to a composer are like infantrymen to a Chinese general. Expendable. All of which explains why libretto writing has rarely attracted authors of distinction.
But one who did brave the task was Auden himself. And by chance, the two most significant libretti he produced were both playing in London last week: The Rake’s Progress (for Stravinsky) and Paul Bunyan (for Benjamin Britten).
Neither of these texts observes the normal rules that govern writing for the lyric stage. They’re word-dense, erudite, self-consciously poetic; conversation overwhelms the sense of drama; and there’s little in the way of love interest. But they manage, in their maverick manner, to be works of genius. And for the most part they communicated well in these two shows.
Rake’s Progress – a morality tale based on the famous series of paintings by Hogarth but with the addition of a Devil and a Faustian pact to assist the Rake’s downfall – was staged at the Peacock Theatre by British Youth Opera, a training company that uses singers straight from college and with limited experience – which, you’d imagine, would demand indulgence from the audience. But the singers here demanded very little, they were so good. And not least in their delivery of text. Without surtitles, I expected most of Auden’s clever words to be mown down like the infantrymen in his own analogy. But no: they lived to tell the tale thanks to outstandingly bright, clean performances from Frederick Jones (the Rake), Samantha Clarke (his girlfriend Anne) and Sam Carl (Nick the Devil).
Bunyan was a small-scale ENO production playing in the distressed chic of Wilton’s Music Hall, which was an inspired choice for a piece that’s more vaudeville than opera. It retells a myth about the founding of America. But more than that, it charts – in cartoon terms – the course of universal history and the conflicts that arise as culture, commerce and society emerge en route to civilisation. Like so much of Auden’s output, it is didactic and can read like lecture notes; but they’re delivered with endearing humour and the benefit of Britten’s music, which in turns is folksy, captivating and sophisticated.
ENO’s production by the young director Jamie Manton nicely pulled all that together in a show that emphasised the universal and the now: the maybe not so civilised of places that the world has ended up in. It managed to be hopeful if equivocal. Which seems to me as fair a take on modern life as you could ask.
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