The Bear (William Walton)
Angelique (Jacques Ibert)
Victorian Opera, Melbourne
Ollivier-Philippe Cuneo, conductor
Talya Masels, director
reviewed by Neville Cohn
In the minds of most opera-goers, mention of a double bill of one acters, calls I Pagliacci and Cavalleria Rusticana instantly to mind. Opera Victoria, however, has put on a double bill that might well be completely new to many: William Walton’s The Bear and Jacques Ibert’s Angelique.
In brief, this is the plot of The Bear: A widow (Popova) is in deepest mourning for her serial adulterer husband. She has become a recluse. Her butler Luka urges her to come out of seclusion. There is a visitor: Smirnov, a debtor who demands immediate payment of a loan to avoid his financial ruin. A fierce argument ensues, with a duel narrowly averted. Improbably, widow and debtor fall in love.
Lavish laurels to John Bolton Wood who was a frankly marvellous Smirnov. His diction had a level of clarity that critics dream about but seldom encounter in reality, his stage presence a model of its kind. And his face mirrored a myriad subtle emotions. Jessica Aszodi, too, could hardly be faulted as Popova – and Andrew Collis’ facial expressions and body language were comic inspirations.
Ibert’s Angelique, unlike The Bear, has very much less singing; a good deal of the script is spoken dialogue. A crucial character – Boniface – was to have been played by Samuel Dundas but illness compelled withdrawal. So, at very short notice, the role was taken over by not one player but two – James Payne and Adam Murphy.
Payne, clad entirely in black, stepped onstage from the wings to sing his lines and then silently withdrew. Adam Murphy, though, tackling the spoken word with a script gripped tightly in the hand, (there was no time to memorise it) brought the house down again and again. I cannot praise his characterisation too highly; I savoured its every ridiculous moment. As the hapless husband of a woman who is the ultimate harridan, physically violent and verbally abusive, his frantic desire to get her off his hands was a comic delight. For much of the time, Murphy had the audience in stitches of laughter.
Theresa Borg gave a bravura performance as Angelique. And no less satisfying a characterisation is that of Charlot by Gary Rowley. As the marriage broker trying to offload his dangerous client onto some unsuspecting victim, he rose to comic heights. No fewer than four husbands would return her in short order:
A capacity audience fell about as a weirdly garbed pageant of gentlemen proposed marriage to a human hand grenade.
Benjamin Namdarian was hilarious as The Italian, nursing a broken leg courtesy of the charmless Angelique; Paul Biencourt was a no less funny as a concussed Englishman – and Pelham Andrews, sporting a turban like some monstrous white onion, brought the house down as the King of Bambaras.. Even the Devil (Jacob Caine), in a demonic outfit, returned the goods complaining that Hell had been turned upside down by the appalling, vomitous Angelique.
Director Talya Masel’s directorial touch was everywhere apparent: an arm gesture here, an inclination of a head there, a sudden sideway glance; it added up to theatrical magic and I savoured every second of it. Certainly, the whole of this carefully considered production was significantly greater than the sum of its constituent parts.
This was an evening of utterly diverting silliness that would surely have melted the heart of the most curmudgeonly of opera goers.
Ollivier-Philippe Cuneo presided over events to excellent effect, extracting a consistently stylish response from his players both on stage and in the pit.
Harriet Oxley’s costume designs for Angelique were wondrously over the top.
This double bill had the stamp of distinction. It thoroughly deserves a long run and full houses. Bravo!