MAC Belfast, The


Bear

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).

NIOperaShortsVarious - NI Opera Shorts

NI Opera, 2012 | Fergus Sheil, Rachel O’Riordan, Giselle Allen, Alex Connolly, Doreen Curran, Paul Carey Jones, Mary McCabe, Eamonn Mulhall, Aaron O’Hare, Gemma Prince, Marcella Walsh | The MAC Belfast, 29 June 2012

Our Day by Conor Mitchell and Mark Ravenhill.
Jackie’s Taxi by Ed Bennett and Stacey Gregg.
The Girl Who Knew She Could Fly by Christopher Norby and Frank McGuinness.
Driven by Deirdre McKay and Richard Dormer.
May Contain Flash Photography by Brian Irvine and Owen McCafferty.

The most ambitious project undertaken yet by the recently formed NI Opera, following an award-winning season that wasn’t exactly short of innovation or experimentation - NI Opera Shorts is a bold venture into the risky territory of contemporary opera. Commissioned as part of the London 2012 Festival celebrations around the summer Olympics, NI Opera Shorts consists of five new short opera works - each running for no more than 15 to 20 minutes - showcasing the work of five local composers, written with local, UK and Irish playwrights. Despite the considerable differences between them in terms of approach, style and tone, there was however a remarkable consistency and coherency that arose out of bringing them together in this way, a fact undoubtedly due to a large extent to the creative team’s vision of the concept and the exceptional performances of the singers and the Ulster Orchestra.

Each of the five short works however has its own dramatic impact, particularly when condensed down into the highly-charged form of the opera short. Our Day by Conor Mitchell and Mark Ravenhill has perhaps the most intense experience in terms of its subject and how it relates most directly to the Troubles, but it’s also extraordinarily ambitious in how it concentrates all complex history and emotional content of that experience into one day and into 15-20 minutes of musical and vocal expression. Dealing with the reaction of one family to a British soldier found wounded on the street, the fear, suspicion, hatred and pain is felt on both sides, mixed in with deeper natural human feelings of grief, loss and compassion that have been suppressed or twisted beyond all recognition. Ravenhill sets this one moment of concentrated feeling moreover on one day in 1972 - at the height of the Troubles when, like that famous Christmas football match on the WWI trenches, all Northern Ireland stopped and came together to celebrate the Olympic gold medal win of Mary Peters, a positive moment of beauty, amazement and achievement that throws the twisted reality of what is happening on the streets into perspective.

The raw emotion of that moment is ratcheted up to an almost unbearable level of tension - I could feel myself clenched up in my seat - as guns are waved and shot, as voices are pitched against each other in hatred and fury almost to the level of a scream, with Conor Mitchell’s discordant and aggressively disturbing atonal accompaniment matching the extremity of all those complex, contradictory feelings compressed into such a small time-frame. It put me in mind of Strauss’ Elektra for the intensity of feeling, and dissection of moment-to-moment conflicting emotions, and I daresay you could even apply twisted family archetypes to the arrangement of the protagonists, so rich in allusion is the piece. A large part in putting this across relied on singers being pushed to their limits, and really, the work of Giselle Allen, Marcella Walsh and Eamonn Mulhall was extraordinarily powerful and genuinely chilling.

Ed Bennett and Stacey Gregg’s Jackie’s Taxi is, by contrast, much more up to the minute with the everyday reality on the streets of contemporary Belfast. It may throw in all the expected topical buzzwords of Facebook, blogs and references to Steve Jobs, but it does so in a way that is specific to present-day Belfast - or at least certain parts of it. I never thought I’d see the day when Belfast hoods, millies and spides would appear on an opera stage, but Jackie’s Taxi successfully manages to do that, and do it in a naturalistic way that doesn’t feel too forced or over-dramatised. The language is appropriately as colourful as the subject matter. Sung in English, in chanted lines with strong Belfast accents, it wasn’t always easy to follow the narrative context - something to do with a taxi driver who makes a few drug deliveries on the side complaining about the hazards of her profession and the standard of her clientele - but musically, with Ed Bennett’s Steve Reich-like percussive rhythms, Jackie’s Taxi captured the Belfast beat much better than any of the other pieces, without having to resort to evoking folk or traditional arrangements. In the music, you can sense the pulse of Belfast, the tension and aggression, the humour and the tendency to enjoy a good moan and it fitted perfectly with the use of language and the content, the staging and choreography ensuring that the piece functioned fully in operatic terms.

I felt that this comprehensive operatic dimension that was evident in the first two pieces, was missing from Christopher Norby and Frank McGuinness’s The Girl Who Knew She Could Fly. McGuinness is one of Ireland’s finest playwrights, and his evocation of two parents commemorating the death of their daughter at the site where she jumped to her death from a motorway bridge was beautiful in its concision as a short drama piece. The monologues of the two characters interweave without ever fully connecting, reflecting how each of them is caught up in the torment of their own shattered lives, caught up in a dance of death and despair that holds them together yet keeps them separate. Those sentiments are expressed just as lyrically in Christopher Norby’s Avro Pärt-like score, but it all felt too interiorised and the whole piece never came together in operatic or dramatic terms, the two singers - finely sung by Doreen Curran and Paul Carey Jones, the voices beautifully arranged for the score - looking out for the most part towards the audience over the motorway. The sound of passing cars and the daughter’s voice added additional textures and tone to the work, but if there was a wider dimension to the relating of the circumstances to the daughter’s death, it was difficult to grasp from this single performance.

Evidence however that a dramatic monologue can be operatically expressive (in the manner of Schoenberg’s monodrama Ewartung or Frid’s The Diary of Anne Frank) was provided here by Deirdre McKay and Richard Dormer’s Driven. Like Mitchell and Ravenhill’s Our Day, the success of the work lies in how it bridges the complex relationship between the interior and the external, between what drives one to unfathomable actions in response to a distorted view of nature that has been corrupted by war. Driven relates to the figure of Blair Mayne, a highly-decorated soldier who survived dangerous WWII operations and was named as a threat by Hitler, yet this man comes to meet his death driving a red Riley car at speed down a road in County Down. Entering into the mindset of Mayne, the inner conflict, the nightmarish visions that plague him, his attempts to come to terms with his experiences was powerfully expressed by Eamonn Mulhall and vividly put across through his pacing on the all-purpose staging through effective choreography and lighting. The whole piece was given a perfect musical expression in McKay’s driving Nyman-esque chugging cellos and blaring brass that blended the furious churning of memories and impressions with the momentum of the speeding car. An occasional lilt of traditional Irish arrangements could be detected underlying parts of the score - the only work to draw from such sources - but it was used meaningfully and lyrically in the context of the work. For a monodrama to work so well, it demands a compelling performance on the part of the singer and the orchestra and Driven was consummately dramatic, operatic and emotionally charged.

Drama was predominately to the fore in Brian Irvine and Owen McCafferty’s May Contain Flash Photography, but coming from the pen of one of Northern Ireland’s foremost and most successful contemporary playwrights, that’s not unexpected. The strength of McCafferty’s writing here is the same as in his regular dramas, finding an authentic tone and language for the province’s sense of humour and tying it into a peculiarly absurdist outlook that reflects the self-awareness of hopeless cases who would like to believe that somehow they can overcome the odds - as many have done - but somehow realise the dream itself can be more than enough. Here in May Contain Flash Photography, a family watch a curious alternate-reality lottery where the balls relate to emotions, colours and materials rather than to numbers, hoping that the winning combination will change their lives. The humour is a little hit and miss (and not always each to catch on a single run-through), but humour is difficult to achieve in an opera in any case, particularly in such a short piece. It’s fairly ambitious however to attempt this with a relatively large cast of six characters, all of whom have distinct dreams and expression, but the interaction was exceptionally good. Musically, I wouldn’t have thought a Britten-like style of scoring would have worked in such a context, but Brian Irvine fitted the musical arrangements to the drama very well, the composer particularly strong in bringing the whole range of voices, feelings and overlapping monologues together into a harmonious whole.

What was most memorable about the NI Opera Shorts however wasn’t the quality of the individual contributions, but the sheer variety and the broadness of the scope that they covered. It was thrilling to see the diverse range of ideas that these individual voices brought to the project - an impressive showcase of contemporary Northern Irish opera work that one would rarely have the opportunity to hear performed - but despite the wide spread of musical and dramatic approaches, there was actually a wonderfully complementary diversity to the project as a whole that reflected so many aspects of Northern Irish history, personality and culture. A lot of credit for allowing that to happen has to go to the NI Opera’s artistic director Oliver Mears for pulling this hugely ambitious work together and to the stage director Rachel O’Riordan, who met the considerable challenge of making one stage set suit five very different works, but also found the most effective means of putting each of them across in terms of mood and theatrical presentation.

The highest credit of all however must be given to Fergus Shiel and the Ulster Orchestra who brought these short intense works fully to life in all their rhythmic and lyrical complexity as well as their often difficult serial discordance, switching tone between one work and the next with scarcely a pause other than to adjust to the varied instrumental requirements of each piece. In the relatively small venue of the newly opened Belfast MAC, the audience were able to witness the intricacy of the orchestra’s performance of those arrangements, and it was impressive to behold. The intimacy of the venue (one hopes it will be used again for similarly smaller-scale and even local operatic works in the future) means that there is nowhere to hide any weaknesses, and in this respect the singing of such difficult works must also be judged to be of the highest order, with some fine new talent on display as well as the reliable strengths of Doreen Curran, Paul Carey Jones and Giselle Allen. I’ve yet to be disappointed by anything that the recently formed NI Opera have put on, but with the opening work of their second season, they continue to take on fresh new challenges. Their most ambitious project so far, NI Opera Shorts was another resounding success.