It should be no surprise that Thomas Ades, arch modern-day composer of parody and social satire, has expressed deep admiration for the music of William Walton. But while Walton’s Facade remains an icon of eccentric English wit, his later, brilliantly inventive one-act chamber opera, The Bear – a 1967 “extravaganza”, adapted by librettist Paul Dehn from Chekhov’s “vaudeville” play – remains unduly neglected.
Happily, Mid Wales Opera have chosen the work for their first, admirable SmallStages project, taking reduced-orchestra versions of classic operas to small venues across Wales.
Arranger and MWO music director Jonathan Lyness captures the taut piquancy of Walton’s score with just five players in salon mode. Together, violin/viola and bassoon, harp, percussion and piano romp and sigh through a plethora of styles and references from Stravinsky to Walton himself in support of a fine comedy trio cast.
The mutual taming is directed with crisp irreverence by Richard Studer, set in a domestic dacha and framed by black drapes and birch tree lights. Smirnov (Adam Green), a boorish bear of a salesman, confronts the widow Popova (Carolyn Dobbin) about an unpaid debt, and the gags fly fast, furious and vodka-soaked.
From initial repugnance to eventual love via a charmingly ludicrous would-be duel, bombast, vanity and guile meet faux grief and, well, bombast, vanity and guile. Vocally and amorously it’s an adroitly comic match, pointed with pratfall splendour by the long-suffering servant, Luka (Matthew Buswell).
The evening’s second half comprises titbits from MWO’s forthcoming main-stage Eugene Onegin – plus Scheherazade, Die Fledermaus and more, veering into deadpan territory not so far removed from Walton. Dobbin’s vodka-swilling Orlofsky is an unexpected treat.