Tuesday 9 November 2021

Walton's comic masterpiece, The Bear, in a delightful new film from Opera Holland Park

Walton: The Bear - Opera Holland Park at Stone House (Photo Laima Arlauskaite)
Walton: The Bear - Opera Holland Park at Stone House (Photo Laima Arlauskaite)

William Walton The Bear; Clare Presland, Richard Burkhard, John Savournin, dir: John Wilkie, City of London Sinfonia, cond: John Andrews; Opera Holland Park at Stone House

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 9 November 2021
Walton's comic masterpiece in a delightfully imaginative filmed production from Opera Holland Park

Given the wit and sophistication of his early music, it is curious that William Walton did not find his way to opera earlier, but his first essay in the genre was the large-scale romantic drama Troilus and Cressida. Premiered at Covent Garden in 1954, the rather tepid reaction to the piece perhaps led Walton to not consider a further opera until 1965 when he was commissioned by the Aldeburgh Festival. The result, his one act opera The Bear, premiered in 1967.

By the 1960s, Walton's output was slowing somewhat; never a fast composer, there is a feeling that by this period he was inhibited by being increasingly out of joint with the musical establishment. The Bear was based on a comic play by Chekhov with Walton collaborating on the libretto with screenwriter Paul Dehn (Goldfinger, Murder on the Orient Express). Dehn also wrote the librettos for two of Lennox Berkley's operas, The Dinner Engagement (1954) and Castaway (1967). Interestingly, Chekhov's play had already been the source of another opera, Dominick Argento's 1957 piece, The Boor, though I am unclear whether Walton would have been aware of this.

The Bear seems to be the opera that Walton ought to have written earlier, the music full of witty references to established operatic classics, helping to send-up the over-the-top attitudes of the protagonists. Perhaps, in a way, it could be seen as something of a riposte to Britten's send-up of romantic opera in the Pyramus and Thisbe episode of A Midsummer Night's Dream (1960). Walton never did write a companion piece to The Bear and for all the work's fun it does rather suffer from 'single one-act opera' syndrome, lacking a natural companion. When was the last time you saw it in the theatre?

Now, Opera Holland Park has brought together the cast and director of its 2019 production of Wolf-Ferrari's comic one-act opera Il Segreto di Susanna [see my review] for a filmed production of Walton's The Bear. Filmed at Stone House, Deptford over two days in April 2021, the film features Clare Presland as Yelena Popova, Richard Burkhard as Grigory Smirnov and John Savournin as Luka, directed by John Wilkie, designed by takis and filmed by Simon Wall.

We being with Luka, the servant (John Savournin) about to attend his mistress (Clare Presland). Here, and for much of the film, Savournin breaks the fourth wall and seems to address us; deferential to his mistress' every mood, but showing us his sheer amusement. When the camera reaches the drawing room, where Clare Presland sits in solitary splendour, relishing her mourning, we have a delightful surprise because in the other half of the room are conductor John Andrews and musicians from the City of London Sinfonia (Fran Hills, piano, Ruth Funnell, violin, Christopher Rawley, bassoon, Stephanie Beck, harp, Glyn Matthews, percussion), all in period dress and providing the accompaniment (in Jonathan Lyness' reduced orchestration).

Part of the fun is that none of the cast is aware of the musicians, yet at key moments Wilkie introduces flashback scenes where the singers are more directly backed by the musicians. Whilst they are never explicitly acknowledged, John Andrews' Dr Miracle-like conductor is almost part of the action and as the work progresses, Wilkie shows us the different players, providing solo moments for them.

The opera' fun comes, of course, because Presland's grieving widow and Burkhard's irate neighbour take themselves so seriously, despite their over-the-top attitudinising. The two singers have great fun, and so do we as Walton's ironically romantic music brings out the overdone element. Presland and Burkhard are gloriously physical, and the production manages to be imaginatively dynamic despite ostensibly having a single setting.

Walton's The Bear is being screened every night at 7.30pm from 9 to 13 November 20201 on the Opera Holland Park website on a 'Pay What you Feel' basis.

Opera Holland Park returns to the stage on 29 May 2022 for its 2022 season with new production of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin and Bizet's Carmen, plus the UK premiere of Mark Adamo's 1998 opera Little Women (based on Louisa May Alcott's iconic novel), and a double bill of Delius' Margot le Rouge and Puccini's Le villi. There will be a further collaboration with Charles Court Opera, with Gilbert and Sullivan's HMS Pinafore. The 2022 Young Artists production will be Eugene Onegin. Also returning in 2022 is the company's song recital series, Opera in Song.

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