William Walton wrote enough – Façade, Belshazzar’s Feast, a shattering 1st Symphony and the greatest film score of its time for Henry V – to rank among the unforgettables of English music. But in his own lifetime he was overshadowed by Benjamin Britten, largely thanks to opera. Britten churned out operas that commanded international attention. Walton only managed two: the sprawling, creaky Troilus and Cressida, and the trifle that’s The Bear. Neither a masterpiece.
The Bear, though, is at least a practicable score: with just three characters, it’s easily transported. And in recent weeks it’s been transported through the length and breadth of Wales by Mid Wales Opera, an intrepid company which goes where others fear to tread (like Aberdaron: find it on the map and be afraid). But they were in relatively civilised Hay-on-Wye when I tracked down their Bear. Which was impressive. That it played in an extravagantly furnished Anglo-Catholic church so stuffed with statuary that Our Lady and assorted saints seemed to have bit parts in the show, gave the production a bizarre look. This is, after all, a lightweight Russian comedy, taken from Chekhov, about bad behaviour overwhelmed by true love. But directed with economy by Richard Studer, it delivered.
The small orchestra, under Jonathan Lyness, played with purpose. And the singers – Carolyn Dobbin, Adam Green and Matthew Buswell – were so strikingly accomplished it was hard to believe this wasn’t happening in a major London venue. Mid Wales Opera used to be an ailing company without much profile. But the Studer/Lyness regime, which is new, has brought it back to life. I wish I could say it’s given Walton’s opera a new life: that would be too much to ask.
Coincidentally, some of Walton’s Façade songs turned up in a London launch concert for next year’s Leeds Lieder Festival, given by soprano Carolyn Sampson with the pianist Joseph Middleton. Anyone familiar with Façade will know that it exists in different versions, nearly all with texts intended to be rhythmically declaimed against the music. But a handful were arranged for singing – as heard here – and they include a song called Daphne which belongs among the most exquisitely seductive music Walton ever wrote. It was a jewel that Sampson polished beautifully, although her light, bright, chiseling voice is better suited to Handel, Bach and all things 18th century. Her efforts to branch out are understandable, but this is really not a voice for Schumann, which she also programmed. A mistake.
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