THE BEAR, MID WALES OPERA Walton's comic opera goes down like a shot of salted caramel Stoli in a sparky touring production
Go west, opera-lover: Mid Wales Opera is back in business. In fact, it’s been back since spring this year, when it toured venues in Wales and England with a warmly reviewed Handel Semele and a striking (and impressively cast) Magic Flute inspired by 1970s British sci-fi. That was the first production under the company’s new artistic leadership of Jonathan Lyness and Richard Studer – a conductor/director team with considerable form and substantial ambitions. This spirited chamber staging of Walton’s 1967 “extravaganza in one act” The Bear – MWO’s third new production this year – is modest in scale, but uncompromising in quality.
And if opera on this budget is about the art of the possible, Lyness and Studer have made a shrewd choice. Written for Aldeburgh (apparently the original suggestion came from Peter Pears), The Bear is a 50-minute squib by Chekhov, translated and adapted by Paul Dehn and set by Walton for just three singers plus a 15-piece orchestra. The heart of the story is an extended squabble between two neighbours, the widow Yelena Popova and the bluff Grigory Stepanovich Smirnov (the “Bear”). He needs to collect on a debt; she resents any interruption to her mourning routine. They bicker, then rage: Smirnov cites sexual equality and demands a duel. Pistols are drawn before they realise – and I don't honestly think this counts as a spoiler alert – that they’re actually perfect for each other.
It doesn’t sound much, and Studer’s production (he doubles as designer) keeps the action in Chekhov’s single room, while Lyness has shrunk Walton’s ensemble even further to a multitasking quintet of violin, bassoon, harp, piano and percussion. But it’s got everything you need for an hour’s entertainment. The characters are vividly sketched, the situation is timeless, and the big moments are laugh-out-loud funny. And Walton’s score is a joy: sliding, smooching and spinning on a rouble from salon waltzes and shimmering sexual tension to dissonant irony and spiky musical in-jokes (a little flash of Richard Strauss when someone mentions Salome; snare drum plus self important bassoon to establish Smirnov’s ex-military credentials). The gleeful invention and youthful irreverence of Façade hovers over the whole show: a rapid-fire rejoinder to the assumption that in semi-retirement on Ischia, the old boy had lost his bite.
Lyness directed from the keyboard, and it all swung along with zest and relatively few of the balance problems you might expect from a performance in a church (St Mary’s Hay-on-Wye hosted this particular stop on MWO’s 16-date tour). “It’s no good pretending it’s Three Sisters,” Walton is reported to have said, and MWO’s central pair each dialled their performance a generous notch up from naturalism. Carolyn Dobbin, as Popova, has an extraordinarily flexible face, emoting grandly before the portrait of her dead husband, then pouring herself another vodka with a sly smile – a very merry widow indeed, with a sunny, flexible mezzo that could convey both steely hauteur and a deepening tenderness. Adam Green’s Smirnov clomped onstage in riding boots and a massive fur hat, and his singing had at least as much Russian blackness as the role required. His is a big, handsome voice that rang slightly hollow when he blustered, and was warmest in his puzzled asides: again, precisely as the part demanded.
With Matthew Buswell (pictured above with Carolyn Dobbin) playing the servant Luka as an embattled voice of reason (his measured singing made a droll contrast to his mounting catalogue of injuries: collateral damage in Smirnov and Popova’s increasingly excitable clashes), there was more than enough humanity here to make Chekhov’s caricatures live. Studer’s direction didn’t stint on physical comedy, either: the characters brandished chairs, swigged vodka and jumped on furniture with exuberant enthusiasm and as much dignity as can be maintained when you’re wearing a pair of purple plaid trousers. The set comprised little more than a swatch of wallpaper, a patch of astroturf and some lighting stands that doubled as stylised birch trees – necessary for a production designed to tour small venues ranging from village halls on the Lleyn peninsula to the Ammanford Miners’ Theatre.
But Lyness and Studer understand the essentials of opera on any scale, and The Bear successfully creates a world and fills it with funny, touching life. I couldn’t stay for the evening’s second half – a sort of preview of MWO’s big spring 2018 production of Eugene Onegin – though it’s hard to imagine a better advertisement for this company’s enterprising ethos and high artistic values than the performance we’d just witnessed. Onegin will be worth seeing; meanwhile The Bear proves that Mid Wales Opera, recently assumed to be defunct, was only ever hibernating. It’s woken with a roar.