WORKS: The Bear
PERFORMER: Della Jones, Alan Opie, John Shirley-QuirkNorthern Sinfonia/Richard Hickox
CATALOGUE NO: CHAN 9245 DDD
The superior merits of Walton’s one-act extravaganza The Bear, premiered by the English Opera Group at the 1967 Aldeburgh Festival, over the more ambitious but intrinsically flawed, if intermittently impressive three-act Troilus and Cressida, are widely acknowledged. Yet, as with so many one-acters, it has inexplicably failed to sustain the interest of our larger professional opera companies. This neglect is unforgivable.
Puccini – particularly Gianni Schicchi – is the obvious model, both in terms of the overall design and the Italianate glow to its melodic and harmonic writing. But its irreverent if loving homage to past operatic masters in its pastiche inevitably invites comparison with Walton’s Façade of nearly 50 years earlier. Happily Walton, albeit in his sparer, late manner, remains an abiding presence throughout, nowhere more so than in the yearning, bitter-sweet string cantilena towards the end of the opera. This signals the flowering of love between the boorish landowner Smirnov and the recently widowed Popova, a characteristically melancholic yet ultimately optimistic statement determined to antagonise the Sixties avant-garde by whom Walton felt increasingly marginalised.
Posterity has proved its worth however; the work is a gem of brevity and wit, and although EMI’s original cast album has yet to appear on CD, this latest issue in Chandos’s ongoing, complete Walton project makes an excellent alternative, with characterful interpretations from Della Jones, Alan Opie and John Shirley-Quirk and sparkling support from the Northern Sinfonia under Richard Hickox. Much recommended. Antony Bye