The Bear Goes Walkabout is a trilogy of operas, linked by a common theme: each tells the story of a widow. Two of the works are new compositions, performed alongside The Bear, an opera by the iconic English composer William Walton. The production has been put together by two young, emerging opera companies – Helios Chamber Opera and Melos Sinfonia. The show has toured the UK this August, including a stop-off at Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and this performance at St Cyprian’s Church in London was the last. The artistic directors Oliver Zeffman and Ella Marchment are both in their early twenties, and the production was a remarkable achievement.
Red As Blood came first, written by young composer Joel Rust who’s currently studying a Masters at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. The opera is set in Iceland, with a libretto that Joel has extracted from the Njáls Saga. I hadn’t heard of it either, but it’s a huge Icelandic work centred on blood feuds and family honour (to sum it up in fewer words than it probably deserves). Joel has taken one particular dispute from the saga – that of Hildigunnr who wants revenge against the men who murdered her husband – and grounded it within a powerful orchestral score. The atmosphere created was palpable, with chilling chords from the woodwind and string writing that swirled underneath like rippling Icelandic waters. The music sounded modal at times, reminiscent of the Middle Ages when the saga was written. Helen Stanley sung the role of Hildigunnr with huge intensity and a voice that she skilfully wrapped around the often unpredictable melodies.
Sandwiched in the middle was Philip Ashworth’s composition, BARE, with a libretto by Natasha Collie. Enshrouded in a wonderful sense of absurdity, this piece is about dressmaker Bellisant Bardell, who earns her keep designing mourning clothes for widows and lives with her two sons (the oldest modelled one of Bellisant’s dresses for the duration). The opera juxtaposed the sombre with the light-hearted, both in its storyline and in the orchestral writing. The score was witty and clever, a hotchpotch of styles intelligently woven together. David Fearn was captivating in the role of Bellisant’s cross-dressing son, with an aria that showed off his moving voice. In terms of music and drama sharing the limelight, this was perfect opera writing.
The evening concluded with William Walton’s one-act opera The Bear. Based on the play by Anton Chekov, it was Walton’s second and last operatic composition and was written for the Aldeburgh Festival of 1967. Farcical and satirical, the protagonist is Popova who has sworn fidelity to her dead husband for the rest of her life. All is thrown out of kilter with the arrival of Smirnov, who is owed money by the deceased man. Tempers rise, which in turn causes other emotions to hit the surface. The production was like a mini film, with superb acting (Angus McPhee was fantastic as Smirnov) and heaps of energy. The stage direction was resourceful – the backdrop for all three operas was made up of wooden cupboards and wardrobes that characters passed through, adding to the evening’s sense of surreal. The accompanying orchestra displayed great musical talent, and conductor Oliver Zeffman was a competent helmsman.
It was astonishing what variety – and, more astonishingly, humour – could be achieved from the theme of widowhood and bereavement. This was genuine talent on display, and I was nothing but impressed.