What more could you want from a healthy-sized audience on a freezing December night at a theatre away from the bubble of Cardiff than laughter, engagement and clear appreciation of singing, acting and playing.
Cwmbran’s Congress Theatre hosted Mid Wales Opera’s much-welcomed SmallStages project with a new version of William Walton’s 55 minute, one-act chamber opera, The Bear.
This was written in 1967 with a libretto adapted by Paul Dehn from what Anton Chekhov dubbed his 1888 work a “stupid vaudeville”. Its success even surprised its author.
So this is the opera’s 50th year and as the October Revolution was 100 years ago this is an apt addition to the company’s Russian season which will include Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin in early 2018.
The production is splendid with white birch trees acting as lighting props for Mme Popova’s comfortable home, a stage with oat bales, a desk and a couple of chairs, a silhouette portrait of Madam Popova’s deceased husband on the flocked wallpaper wall and some vodka shot glasses, writing implements (including a wonderfully used feather quill) and a large box of tissues for the widow’s endless wailing.
The costumes are equally impressive with Mme Popova in period mourning clothes, but still rather lavish, the long-suffering man-servant Luka in appropriate livery and the bourgeois oats salesman Smirnov (yes it does indeed sound like a brand of vodka) who is owed 1,300 rubles by the deceased looking as close to a bear as is possible in a vast coat, fur-trimmed hat, whiskers and dirt-covered face. Both Luka and Smirnov wear great black boots but that is by the by.
Also sharing the stage are the musicians Alexandra Callenan (bassoon), Judith Choi Castro (violin), Max Ireland (percussion), Ruth Kenyon (harp), led from piano by MWO’s music director Jonathan Lyness. They form a formidable ensemble for a quite riotous melding and contrasting of musical genres that both work with the trio on stage and also pepper the plot and its underlying narratives.
Adam Green and Carolyn Dobbin
The story is ridiculous but then so too is much of the other Chekhov works that are performed with sometimes tiresome regularity and preposterous updating.
With an impish glint his eye Richard Studer, directs The Bear/ Smirnov sung and acted with roller coaster motions, gentleness, confusion and boorish anger by Adam Green and the possibly over flighty and flirty widow Popova whose husband owes the debt for her late husband’s over indulgence of pet horse Toby. Carolyn Dobbin is a lovely comedy actress and singer with sparkling eyes and music hall gestures and exaggeration that is ideal for this show.
The production makes much of the role of the servant, Luka, here sung gorgeously by Matthew Buswell who also shows his flair for comedy and is given a fully-slapstick characterisation to deliver, much to the audience’s delight. He is polishing the saddle of the horse Toby, the cause of the problems, as the deceased husband (who we are also informed has been a shocking womaniser in a cute aria reminding us of Leporello the list aria in Mozart’s Don Giovanni), is reminded to keep feeding Toby, finds himself compromised under that saddle with Mme Popova astride it, until when love strikes this odd couple, he is told not to feed the horse any more oats. Other wild oats are about to be sown no doubt.
It is hinted, or perhaps I imagined, that the servant has more than a passing interest in the officers stationed not far away whom he suggests Mme Popova should take an amorous interest in. If so it makes the naughty saddle scene even more cheeky.
As a taster/ inducement to the company’s next main stage work, Eugene Onegin, MWO Director Richard Studer introduces a second half of elements of that work, Pushkin poetry, Onegin’s rejection of Tatyana aria plus Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade and a very jolly Prince Orlofsky’s à chacun son goût from Strauss’ comic opera Die Fledermaus.
The show is now moving on to Presteign’s Assembly Rooms, Sunday, December 3.
Main image: Matthew Buswell
Eugene Onegin tours to Newtown, Aberystywth, Bangor, Newport, Mold, Brecon, Llanelli, Milford Haven and Hereford from February 24 to April 4, 2018.