The Bear

Andrew Rupp in NI Opera's production of 'The Bear' by William Walton.

Andrew Rupp in NI Opera's production of 'The Bear' by William Walton.

Anna Burford in NI Opera's production of 'The Bear' by William Walton.

Anna Burford in NI Opera's production of 'The Bear' by William Walton.

John Molloy and Anna Burford in NI Opera's production of 'The Bear' by William Walton.

John Molloy and Anna Burford in NI Opera's production of 'The Bear' by William Walton.

Chekhov wrote his one-act farce The Bear in 1888, eight years before The Seagull initiated the run of mature masterpieces on which his reputation for greatness was subsequently founded. The Bear appears, in this context, to be something of a squib, lightly inconsequential and barely distinctive enough to warrant labelling Chekhovian.

Or is it? Add William Walton's music to the edited text he set in 1967, and a staging as probingly intelligent as that given to Walton's "extravaganza" by NI Opera, and you begin to wonder. Walton's score is stacked with different brands of operatic parody, and when reinforced by director Oliver Mears' astute layerings of carefully gradated irony and melodrama in the acting, you start seeing intriguing links with later Chekhov.

They're visible above all in the grotesqueries of behaviour which result when characters need to project different aspects of their personalities, or deploy totally new personalities, to protect themselves socially and emotionally against the wiles and manipulations of other people.

Anna Burford in NI Opera's The BearThis manifests itself most obviously in the dramatic transformation effected by mezzo-soprano Anna Burford, whose Popova mutates from abject, couch-potato widowhood to sizzlingly seductive sex-kitten, deploying lavish quantities of sensual allure to taunt, titillate and control the blunt instrument that is the slavering Smirnov, the 'bear' (or 'boor') of the title. Is the sensuality real or affected? It's hard to tell: where true identity lies in individuals, which version of their social selves is the most authentic, is as difficult to pin down definitively as it is, say, in Uncle Vanya.

Burford revels in her switch of personality and costume, befuddling an increasingly flustered Smirnov with a fizzy cocktail of raw sex appeal and razzle-dazzle. Vocally Burford's is also a commanding performance, undermined occasionally by excessive vibrato, and an odd division in the lower voice below which it begins to sound a touch guttural and curdled.

Her Smirnov, baritone Andrew Rupp, plays the character as a Falstaffian roué, managing the difficult task of making his sudden infatuation with Popova seem plausible with aplomb and conviction. The voice seems dry initially, but soon warms up, becoming more flexible and fuller-textured. Rupp takes the tricky bursts of fioritura Walton gives the character nimbly in his stride, suggesting in them the character's reckless ebullience, as well as a certain underlying insecurity.

Rupp and Burford carry most of the vocal writing, but bass John Molloy makes the most of his several opportunities as the servant Luka, proferring sensible advice to Popova (she ignores it), his resonant stability of tone providing the most satisfying vocal moments of the evening. He also gets the biggest laugh, reverting to his native Offaly inflections when reacting incredulously to the discovery that Smirnov and Popova have suddenly been struck by Cupid's arrow.

Andrew Rupp in NI Opera's The BearSimon Holdsworth's designs update the action to the present, locating Popova in a soullessly immaculate domestic interior, complete with flat-screen television and a seigneurial portrait of her late husband, which goes (literally) out the window eventually. The updating works effectively, Popova's channel-hopping and wine-slurping clearly indicating that her façade of mourning is skin-deep only, and that she's restlessly available for saucier diversions.

A pit-band of sixteen players dispatches Walton's peppery, acerbic writing with alacrity, and is conducted with whippy athleticism by Nicholas Chalmers. Co-ordination between stage and pit is excellent, and the musical results are consistently invigorating.

This witty, incisive production of The Bear marks the end of a momentous season for NI Opera, culminating in a historic, home-grown production of Wagner's The Flying Dutchman a month ago in Belfast. In just its second full year of operation the company has yet to put a foot wrong in terms of repertoire choices and performance quality. It's filling what was once a gaping hole in operatic provision in Northern Ireland, and is doing so with genuine distinction. Plans for the 2013-14 season are eagerly awaited.

Terry Blain

  • Review
  • Theatre

The Bear by William Walton

21-26 March 2013 (on tour)

Produced by NI Opera
In The Mill, Newtownabbey

Directed by Oliver Mears

Conducted by Nicholas Chalmers

Set and Costume Design: Simon Holdsworth

Lighting Design: Kevin Treacy

With: Anna Burford, Andrew Rupp, John Molloy