The Bear

NI Opera adapt William Walton's saucy one-act story under the baton of Nicholas Chambers

William Walton only wrote two operas, which is a little surprising considering the frequently dramatic element in his compositional style. Of those two operas, his shorter attempt, The Bear, is considered the more successful.

Written in 1967 and based on a comic vaudeville by Anton Chekov, Walton described The Bear as an 'extravaganza in one act'. That's an unusual term in the operatic world, and more often associated with music hall and music theatre.

It does, however, perhaps prepare the listener for the whimsical aspect of the plot, which this production by Northern Ireland Opera – here staged in Newtownabbey's Theatre at the Mill – exploits nicely right from the start.

A young and attractive widow, Madame Popova, languishes in mourning for her late husband. She is encouraged by her far from servile servant, Luka, to get over it, hinting that said husband was less than faithful and does not deserve such continued loyalty.

A brash but financially embarrassed Smirnov, one of Popova's husband’s creditors, turns up on the doorstep looking for payment. Following a stormy encounter, including a pistol duel, Popova and Smirnov find that they have fallen for each other in true operatic style.

This NI Opera production effectively steals in upon the audience, and there is humour in every aspect of the staging, from small touches like the bear head on the wall to the overblown gestures and antics of the three protagonists.

In such a theatrical (dare one say melodramatic) production, clarity of diction is essential and John Molloy, as Luka the servant – with his fine resonant voice – sets a good example, which is then matched by the other main protagonists.

Anna Burford, the faithful wife Madame Popova, comically caricatures the melancholic widow with her mellow, fruity mezzo tones, while Andrew Rupp as Smirnov captures to perfection the penurious but richly eccentric county set in all its vulgarity.

All aspects of this production work together to create an amusing, entertaining and only occasionally lewdly suggestive whole. The costumes reflect the slightly over-the-top, contemporary approach, but always underpin the ridiculousness of the plot, which designer Simon Lima Holdsworth sets effectively in the front room of a country mansion.

Of particular note is the small but well-judged locally-based instrumental ensemble, under the baton of Nicholas Chalmers. He has become a stalwart of the company, and it is clear that NI Opera director, Oliver Mears, has found a winning combination yet again in this, his latest high energy production.

The Bear comes to The MAC, Belfast on March 26. 

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