Wednesday 7 August 2013

The Bear goes Walkabout

The Bear goes Walkabout poster
Two young ensembles, Helios Chamber Opera and the Melos Sinfonia have combined in a programme centred around Walton's one act comic opera The Bear. They commissioned two short operas from Philip Ashworth and Joel Rust to accompany the Walton, with all three linked by their subject matter - widows. The three operas span time and style, with Rust's darkly tragic Red as Blood set in the Iceland of the sagas, Walton's comic extravaganza The Bear setting Paul Dehn's libretto based on a Chekov play and Rust's Bare being wittily contemporary. The cast included Helen Stanley, David Fearn, Henry Neil, Sam Carl, Urzula Bock, Angus McPhee with Oliver Zeffman conducting the Melos Sinfonia, an ensemble which he founded. The three operas were directed by Ella Marchment and designed by Kate Auster (sets) and Florence Mein (costumes). The triple bill debuted at the Rose Theatre, Kingston before travelling to the Sage Gateshead and the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. We caught the final outing at St Cyprian's Church, Clarence Gate, London on Tuesday 6 August 2013.

Both Rust and Ashworth are still studying, Rust with Julian Anderson at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and Ashworth with Kenneth Hesketh at the Royal College of Music. Their commissions for the operas in the triple bill came about as the result of a competition which Helios Chamber Opera and the Melos Sinfonia ran to select to new works suitable for accompanying Walton's opera.

Rust's Red as Blood sets a short episode from one of the Icelandic sagas. Hildigunnr's husband has been killed and she wants him avenged. Her brother Flosi refuses he wishes to be a new man and use the law. But Hildigunnr produces her husband's cloak, which Flosi gave him. Her husband was wearing it when he was killed and it is covered in his blood, and she throws it over Flosi. He agrees to avenge her.

In Ashworth's Bare, Bellisant Bardell is a widow who makes a living making elaborate dresses for widows. She has two sons. One, Edward, cross-dresses in his mothers wares and did not get on with his late father at all. The other son, Franklin, is a doctor who is treating the outbreak of flu which is targeting the men of the town, thus providing widows for Bellisant's clients. In the final ensemble it becomes clear quite why the men are dying.

Marchment chose to link the two operas. The same singers played in both. Helen Stanley was Hildigunnr and Bellisant Bardell, David Fearn was Hildigunnr's dead husband and Edward Bardell, Henry Neill was Flosi and Franklin Bardell. But this wasn't the only link, she had added an extra character Time Master, played by Sam Carl, who guided the action in both operas and watched. This seemed to be rather an unnecessary device and seemed to suggest a lack of confidence in the material. Both operas, each lasting 20 minutes, were well able to stand up on their own.

I'm not entirely certain that Rust's Red as Blood is actually an opera. It is a terrific piece with a strong personality and sense of drama. But the way Rust used the orchestra, with long interludes and orchestral interruptions to the action, seemed to suggest a non naturalistic feel to the piece. But though Marchment gave it a ritualistic feel, the staging was rather too busy especially as in addition to the two singing characters we had the non singing characters as well. There were moments when there was too much happening on-stage and I wanted simply to listen to Rust's music.

Rust writes in a basically tonal language with a very confident and dramatic handling of the orchestra, so that they became part of the drama. Big free lines for the singers ensured that the dialogue, essentially free recitative and arioso, was highly expressive and very singable.

Stanley was a big, dramatic Hildigunnr, highly intense in her performance and a dramatic mezzo-soprano in the making. My only complaint was that here, and in Ashworth's opera, it was very difficult to hear her words. Henry Neill made a dignified Flosi, but I wished that his explanation of why he would not avenge Hildigunnr could have been longer.

Rust extracted the libretto himself from Njals Saga, and I can't help thinking that a little dramatic input from a director or librettist might help the piece, especially as the work ends on a bit of a dying fall with a summary of the later action from a narrator (here played by the ghost of Hildigunnr's husband sung by David Fearn). But the piece was confident, dramatic and showed a clear and promising handling of the material.

In the second opera, Bare, Ashworth and his librettist Natasha Collie were attempting the tricky act of writing a comic piece. From the opening Ashworth was clearly tipping his cap at the Walton, as Ashworth's orchestral writing was a clear homage to Walton's, and the way Ashworth worked popular numbers into the rhythms of his accompaniments.

It was difficult appreciating the subtleties of the vocal writing as I had to strain to follow what was going on. Stanley, playing Bellisant, was just not clear enough in her diction and the two men, Fearn and Neill, struggled somewhat. That this might not have been their fault only occurred to me when I heard the Walton in the second half. St Cyprian's Church is a lively acoustic and the Melos Sinfonia were place adjacent to the performing space, in the side aisle of the church. The results made both Rust and Ashworth's pieces very loud. Though both handled their orchestra confidently, it was clear when listening to the Walton that the older composer's orchestral writing was more sympathetic to the singers. I would need to hear the pieces in a theatre with a pit to reach a more balanced judgement.

Ashworth and Collie gave each of the characters an introductory aria, for Stanley there was one as Bellisant waxed lyrical about her dresses, for Fearn there was one about Edward's tricky relationship with his father and for Neill there was one about Franklin's job as a doctor. A good idea in theory, and well performed by the singers, these actually rather held up the action. In all cases, I felt that there was too much material and that Ashworth needed to trim them to make the action move faster. (I speak from personal experience here, in my last opera I spent a valuable but painful series of sessions with director and conductor trimming the piece and losing 10 minutes of music, but the results flowed on stage far better).

That said, the denouement when it came was great fun and well handled by Ashworth. Comic operas are difficult to bring off, and Ashworth's confident handling of his material makes me hope that he writes more opera.

Marchment and Auster's production was highly imaginative. It was billed as a semi-staging, but there was very little that was semi about it. The set consisted simply of a wall of furniture and packing cases which were selected, moved around and used as necessary. Bits of furniture were pulled out from the wall, used and put back, drawers held props to be used. The cast acted as their own supers and manipulated the set as necessary. During the denouement of Ashworth's opera, Neill turned the packing cases round to reveal tombstones painted on them, a neat device.

This continued into Walton's The Bear in the second half as the entire opera took place in and around the wall of furniture, with wardrobes turning into doors and being used for entrances and exits. Sam Carl, who had displayed a fine gift for physical movement in the non-speaking role in the first half, played Luka the servant with a wonderful feeling for physical comedy. This was movement which seemed to come out of the music, rather than being applied and he was a joy to watch and listen to. He played Luka as a rather intense young man, clearly in love with his mistress, Yeliena Ivanova Popova. She was played by Urszula Bock. English is clearly not Bock's first language, but her enunciation of Dehn's text was admirably clear and the subtleties of the comedy and word setting came over well here. Bock was delightful as the rather uptight widow, determined to immure herself to prove she was faithful even though her husband was not.

Angus McPhee was delightfully dishevelled as Girgory Stepanovich Smirnov, but not so boorish as to make the plot seem impossible. McPhee has great experience as a choral singer, having participated in the Genesis Sixteen, but here he showed that he has great comic skills on the stage as well. Perhaps his voice seemed a little light for the role, but he projected the character well and with great appeal. He and Bock developed a fabulous rapport and as their feuding developed, so the physical comedy escalated in a completely delightful way.

This was an enchanting production of a delightful comedy and I only wish that I had been able to catch it in the theatre rather than in a church. But the cast coped admirably with the unconventional playing area and the closeness of the audience.

Oliver Zeffman and the Melos Sinfonia were extremely impressive in all three operas, performing with skill and confidence and, in the Ashworth and Walton, not a little wit.

This was a highly impressive project, a triple bill of operas created, directed and performed by a team of young people. All three operas had a vividness and energy, along with an entrancing quality which transcended any limitations that performing in St. Cyprian's Church might have brought.

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