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The Bear – Opera Holland Park

Reviewer: Helen Tope

Director: John Wilkie

Composer: William Walton

Applying impish humour to a classic, The Bear is Opera Holland Park’s latest production.

Inspired by the Chekhov play of the same name, composer William Walton’s 1967 opera The Bear has all the familiar Chekhovian motifs: grandeur in decline, debts unpaid and an all-seeing, all-knowing servant who acts as Greek chorus, commenting on the action.

Walton’s one-act piece loses no time in setting up the introductory scene. Filmed on location at Stone House, Luka the servant, ushers us into a beautiful mansion. We follow him upstairs to the drawing room where the lady of the house lies on a sofa, weeping.

Yelena Popova (played by Clare Presland) is dressed in mourning, nearly a year after her husband’s death. The mantelpiece is covered with his silhouettes. While the 19th century is fastidious about its mourning rituals, Luka implores his mistress to get back into life again. Go for a walk, enjoy some fresh air, take the horse for a ride.

She insists that she will remain in mourning for the rest of her life. Not in memory of a beloved husband (it later transpires he was not the paragon of husbandly virtue), but in spite of his cheating and lying. While Luka despairs of how to rally his mistress, there is a knock at the door.

A creditor, Grigory Smirnov (Richard Burkhard) informs Yelena that her husband died leaving behind a large amount of debt. A hulking, uncouth presence, Yelena dubs Smirnov “the bear”. Leaning into Walton’s comedy, Grigory and Yelena argue and bicker. Grigory is presented with a debtor far more interesting than his usual coterie of dodgers and layabouts.

Performed by members of the City of London Sinfonia, Walton’s score is adapted into a chamber arrangement by Jonathan Lyness. Under the direction of John Wilkie, putting the musical performers and singers together in the same room gives the production a feeling of being in Chekhov’s world of cramped gentility.

The humour in The Bear comes from Chekhov’s caricatures: character types that are recognisably part of Russian literature, but wildly exaggerated. As Yelena, Presland gives us performative grief; Richard Burkhard’s Grigory swoons and sneers in equal measure. John Savournin, in the role of Luka, acts as our go-between. The silent, dutiful servant gets an update in Walton’s opera, as his asides are not just perfunctory, but a lively critique of his betters. Luka’s nervy twitchiness is brilliantly conveyed by Savournin. The comedy as a whole may be laid on thick, but it’s all the more enjoyable for it.

It is no surprise that this production – which merges the elegiac notes of Chekhov with the quirkiness of Walton – works as well as it does. The close-knit cast never lose pace, and Walton’s score sounds bright and vivid, being played live as the singers vie for our attention. It may be opera in miniature, but The Bear delivers big on energy, style and performance.

Available here until 13 November 2021

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