Live performance may be back, but Opera Holland Park still gives us the opportunity to enjoy an absolute gem from the comfort of our own homes.
In April 2021, before it was certain all summer opera venues would be able to see through their seasons exactly as they were planned, Opera Holland Park took to filming a version of Walton’s 1967 opera The Bear, itself based on Chekhov’s eponymous play. Available online this week and lasting less than an hour, it is a well proportioned, and here well performed, gem that seems guaranteed to chase away those November blues.
Set around 1888, the three-hander sees the widow Yelena Ivanovna Popova remain faithful to the memory of her late husband, while her servant Luka urges her to move on. Grigory Stepanovich Smirnov appears, claiming that Popova’s spouse owed him money which he needs to have from her today if he is to avoid losing his estate and landing in jail. When she claims there is nothing she can do before the end of the week when she sees her bailiff, he insists on staying until the debt is paid. Popova asserts that Smirnov does not understand etiquette or how to speak to a woman, but he claims the contrary as he describes his multitudinous past loves. She feels even more insulted on hearing this, pointing out that she is a faithful widow despite knowing of her husband’s numerous infidelities. As their argument escalates out of control, they agree to a duel to settle matters, which privately impresses Smirnov because Popova does not shy away from the challenge. The story has a happy ending though, as neither proves able to fire because they have instead fallen in love.
The three singers all appeared in OHP’s 2019 production of Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari’s Il segreto di Susanna, with the only difference being that then the servant played by John Savournin, Santa, comprised a non-singing part, while here as Luka he gets to display his vocal chops. Interestingly, both pieces have something to say about the gender politics of their respective times. Although Il segreto di Susanna needs to be appreciated as a comedy, it is still telling that in 1909 a husband smelling smoke on his wife was more likely to assume she was having an affair than that she might enjoy a cigarette for herself. Amidst the humour of The Bear, there are serious questions concerning how long a widow should be expected to mourn, even when it appears the deceased behaved far from nobly. In this way, it exposes the highly uneven expectations placed on men and women at the time concerning what levels of infidelity were deemed acceptable.
“…it is a well proportioned, and here well performed, gem…”
Utilising a chamber reduction by Jonathan Lyness, this performance was recorded live over two days on location at Stone House. With one exception at the end, all of the action that involves singing takes place in the same Georgian drawing room with the City of London Sinfonia, conducted by John Andrews who also led Il segreto di Susanna, being positioned at one end where the room appears to lead into an adjacent rotunda. Its members wear appropriate attire and, while the cameras generally focus on the other end of the room where most of the visual action occurs, at the point where Luka describes a ball, he dances in front of the ensemble to make it an integral part of the action.
In this way, John Wilkie’s production, which is designed by takis, achieves the best of both worlds in that the singers and orchestra perform together exactly as they would in a live performance, with nothing being recorded in the studio or edited in afterwards. At the same time, we see action in a variety of locations that makes us feel truly immersed in the experience. At the start Smirnov, with a bear’s head on, walks towards the house and enters, with the camera adopting his point of view so that in Simon Wall’s film we truly feel as if Luka is welcoming us in and then leading us up the stairs. Similarly, as Popova describes all of her husband’s infidelities in the drawing room, we cut to various scenes around the house and estate that constitute flashbacks in which Popova finds old-fashioned undergarments under the harpsichord lid and Luka recovers them from the garden.
The three central performances are all excellent, both vocally and dramatically, with mezzo-soprano Clare Presland as Popova giving a superb portrayal of dutiful widowhood clashing with the feelings of an intelligent person who has her own sense of right and wrong. Baritone Richard Burkhard provides an equally multi-faceted portrayal of the torn, sometimes desperate but ultimately impressed Smirnov, while as Luka bass-baritone John Savournin brings a lot of detail to the proceedings that helps to make the production what it is. Once seen, who could ever forget the image of him serving his sorrowful mistress tea while attempting to hide a mouse?!
The Bear is available to watch online at 19.30 each evening from 9 to 13 November, and at 13.00 on 12 and 13 November, on the Opera Holland Park website on a ‘Pay What You Feel’ basis.