Thu 4 Apr 2013
William Walton - The Bear
NI Opera, 2013 | Nicholas Chalmers, Oliver Mears, Anna Burford, Andrew Rupp, John Molloy | The MAC, Belfast - 26 March 2013
There was quite a change of content, style and scale between NI Opera’s last production of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman for the Grand Opera last month and their production of William Walton’s short one-act chamber opera The Bear, performed at the smaller arts theatre of the MAC in Belfast. Directed again by Oliver Mears with Nicholas Chalmers conducting, The Bear at least conformed to Wagner’s preference to have the orchestra and conductor remaining invisible to the audience, but that’s about the only level on which The Bear can be compared to Wagner. Walton’s work was far from the most challenging NI Opera production then and the merits of the work itself are questionable, but in terms of the approach adopted for this lightly humorous work, it was everything it should be.
Based on a comic short play by Chekhov, ‘The Bear‘ is not one of the Russian master’s more notable works that stand as masterpieces of the dramatic repertoire like ‘The Cherry Orchard‘, ‘The Seagull‘ or ‘Three Sisters‘. It’s one of Chekhov’s earlier comedies that has its own peculiarly Russian sense of humour and it is also rather dated by today’s standards. Walton’s opera version of the work, written in 1967, is an almost identical word-for-word adaptation that retains the pace, the dynamic and the tone of the original work, with its comic interplay operating effectively between just three characters.
The comedy revolves around the widow Yeliena Ivanovna Popova who has been in mourning for her dead husband Nicolai Mihailovich for almost a year now. That’s a period of grieving that is regarded as most unseemly by her footman Luka, who wept over the death of his old lady for a month - but seven? Well, the old woman wasn’t worth that and surely no-one is, not even Nicolai Mihailovich. Yeliena Popova moreover is still young and there’s a whole regiment of troops billeted in a nearby district, so Luka don’t know what all the fuss is about. It’s a middle-aged landowner Grigory Stepanovitch Smirnov however who makes an impression when he appears at the household trying to recover one of her husband’s debts, but the road to courtship is not without some trouble along the way.
The Bear, as the title might suggest, is very much as a parody on distinctly extreme Russian qualities and characteristics involving drinking vodka (the name Smirnov obviously gets an extra laugh here), running up debts, extravagant mourning, headlong plunges into deep emotions and fiery outbursts of temper that lead to duels. It may not be one of Chekhov’s most insightful serious works, and the farcical humour might appear to be slightly dated, but the manner and the truth of the characteristics he exposes through this short comic situation are no less precise and revealing. It’s hard to fault Walton’s take on the work either other than on similar questions of musical fashion and personal taste. It’s a genuinely comic score of a kind that is all too rarely heard, perfectly matching the tone of the drama, with jaunty rhythms and tooting instruments, extending ‘ooohh!’s and expressions of despair to the point where they do indeed become funny - but it’s all very much in a music-hall kind of idiom. It’s pleasant and entertaining but by no means a great work.
Obviously however with a small cast, a chamber score and a situation with plenty of dramatic incident, there is ample compensation in the opportunities The Bear provides in the performance of the musicians and the singers. That depends very much of course upon the director and the conductor working together to the rhythms and the pace of the work and with the solid team of Oliver Mears and Nicholas Chalmers there are no problems there. All of the singers moreover are simply marvellous. John Molloy, a Wexford regular, is something of an expert on rare material, particularly those with comic interplay, and he’s excellent here as Smirnov. The other young members of the cast are just as impressive, Andrew Rupp’s Luka getting the best laughs, but it’s Anna Burford ’s Yeliena Popova who has to carry much of the work’s comedy and singing challenges and she does so exceptionally well, never faltering in even some of the more testing situations.
One of only two operatic works written by William Walton (the other being Troilus and Cressida, written in 1954), The Bear might not be one of the greatest or most challenging opera works, but it is designed to be lightly entertaining and funny and NI Opera’s production certainly brought out those qualities. You can’t ask for more than that. NI Opera’s production of The Bear at the MAC in Belfast was programmed with five Songs and Sonnets from Shakespeare in beautiful jazz-influenced musical and choral arrangements by George Shearing (1919-2011).