Opera Holland Park has not gone into its winter hibernation by any means. They are currently streaming a production of William Walton’s little-known and delectable one-act opera, ‘The Bear’. it was recorded back in April on location at the Georgian property, Stone House, in a reduced chamber-orchestra version by Jonathan Lyness.
This is a very welcome initiative. ‘The Bear’ is one of Walton’s best works and yet it rarely sees the light of day in any format. In it he finds once again the satirical brio and panache of ‘Façade’ and escapes the much less successful grand opera vein of ‘Troilus and Cressida’ that had burdened him for much of the 1950s. The snappy and cheeky libretto by Paul Dehn was clearly very much to his taste and must have helped stimulate the wit and continuous fizzy invention of the music.
The plot derives from a Chekhov short story that revolves around the absurdities produced by an absence of self-knowledge. A widow, Popova, has plunged into wholly exaggerated grief eliding the fact that her late husband was an unfaithful brute who made her life a misery. She is visited by an importunate neighbour, Smirnov, intent on recovering a large debt owed to him by the deceased husband. He is as misogynist as she is self-absorbed and they quickly come to blows, or at least to a duel using the husband’s pistols. Despite or perhaps because of their elaborate insults they become fascinated with one another and end by declaring their affections, much to the world-weary astonishment of Popova’s long-suffering retainer, Luka.
This is insubstantial fare, but what makes it memorable is style and poise in music, singing and acting; and for the most part this is delivered here. Clare Presland relishes Popova’s autocratic tantrums and sly deceptions with acting just the right side of exaggeration. Smirnov is performed by Richard Burkhard who captures the pomposity and boorish swagger of the character, but also melts nicely into ardour when the mood switches. The versatile and ever-adaptable John Savournin fusses around tartly in the background as the archetypal wise and long-suffering servant.
There are delicious parodies of numerous opera composers along the way in both the vocal and orchestral parts and they are all the funnier for being played straight. Strauss, Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky and others flash past and then are gone almost as soon as you recognise them. The small band play incisively and crisply under John Andrews’ direction, though I miss some of the unique touches of the original, larger scale orchestration, particularly in the parodic moments.
There are some drawbacks though. The recorded sound is inevitably rather boxy, not helped by the relatively small rooms in which the interior shots are performed. It is relief when we move outside into a more easeful acoustic. Also, the interior scenes seem rather cramped and the acting rather too careful at times, as if the singers are worried about colliding with furniture in the cluttered spaces.
So in the end you are reminded that a streamed show is no replacement for a fully staged production; but that does not significantly reduce the pleasure of seeing this all-too-rarely performed piece in a production where all those involved seemed to be having a lot of pleasure too. This hour is well worth while….
- Music by William Walton
- Libretto by Paul Dehn (after Chekhov)
- Director: John Wilkie
- Conductor: John Andrews
- Leading Performers: Richard Burkhard, Clare Presland, John Savournin
- Opera Holland Park
- Until: 13 November 2021,
- 1hr streamed online