Theatre in Wales

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Mid Wales Opera in Russian Bear Mode in 2017 and 2018

At Mid Wales Opera

New Small Venues Initiative and Company Summary , Opera in Wales , April 27, 2018
At Mid Wales Opera by New Small Venues Initiative and Company Summary As they approach 2018, Mid Wales Opera near the thirty year mark since the very beginning of their activities in North Powys, the year before their official “birth” at Theatr Hafren in 1989.

Their performance of The Bear, part of their new SmallStages project, at The Assembly Rooms Presteigne in early December brought their last tour of 2017 to an end and at the same time introduced the production they will be touring next year.

The Bear is a one act opera by William Walton adapted from a play of the same name by Anton Chekhov. The Russian theme is not an accident, of course, since this year we're all celebrating – or perhaps one should say commemorating – that other anniversary, the centenary of The Russian Revolution, which began in March 1917.

But MWO boldly continue in Russian Bear mode as they begin 2018, their first production of the year being Tchaikovsky's magnificent work, Eugene Onegin.

I spoke briefly to Richard Studer (the artistic co-director of the company) before their last performance of the year, about Walton's opera The Bear and about their first project of 2018, the truly Russian, Eugene Onegin. He told how he and music co-director, Jonathen Lyness, brought the idea for SmallStages ready formulated to Mid Wales Opera, an idea for the touring of super scaled down productions of operas like The Bear, which can comfortably play the intimate venues that abound across Wales.

“There are very few big stages in Wales”, Studer ventured, “so it makes sense to tour in this way...”. He and Lyness are very keen on accessibility and community engagement. Their next project will clearly be on a much grander scale and tour larger venues, but the production process for Tchaikovsky's Onegin will engage in a big way too since they plan to work with community choirs in each area they visit, integrating these into their performances at the theatres they tour.

Studer has a very winning, golden enthusiasm about his work with MWO, which bodes well for the company's success, enthusiasm and passion go a long way with small and mid scale work here in Wales, where survival can often be a battle.

The company's origins were in North Powys back in 1988, the result of workshops at an opera summer school organised by aficionados, Barbara Mcguire, and farmer-opera singer, Alun Jones, who famously towed a trailer load of scenery with his tractor to Meifod village hall (about eight miles north-west of Welshpool) where they were to give their first concert performances. He later opened that concert, singing Figaro.

The fledgling company became Mid Wales Opera in 1990, by which time their base had become Theatr Hafren in nearby Newtown and they had managed to achieve Arts Council funding. Over the ensuing twenty years MWO developed their reputation for touring scaled down versions of opera repertoire to small and mid scale venues throughout Wales and further afield, maintaining their links to the Birmingham Conservatoire Opera School (via MWO co-founder, Keith Darlington) and to the Welsh National Opera, with periodic input from WNO orchestra musicians and guest soloist singers.

Mcguire and Darlington handed over to Nicolas Cleobury as director in 2009. When he left in 2016, Studer and Lyness became the new directorial partnership of MWO. They came as a team, both well seasoned in opera production and music theatre, having co-founded and collaborated together on the UK touring company, Opera Project. T

They are consummate all-rounders, which makes them ideal as directors of a small outfit such as this. Studer is also designer, publicist and development wizard, as well as stage directing productions; and Lyness is expert at orchestration and at reducing musical scores for smaller ensembles as well as being music director. Studer informed me proudly, on the record, that Lyness' reduced arrangement of the chamber score for “The Bear” (to only five instruments) has just been officially approved by the Walton Estate and archived for posterity.

Walton's opera was originally commissioned by the Aldburgh Festival in 1967. Curiously, the librettist was Paul Dehn, better known for his screen writing on films “Goldfinger” and “Planet of The Apes”. It is a comedy and can be played in various ways, since the humour is inherent in the situation and the absurdity of the principal characters. But it is also Chekhov and so the desperateness of the comedy is tinged with an under-lying tragedy of situation.

Each character, Popova, her neighbour Smirnov, and the man-servant, Luka, is also locked into his or her personal, claustrophobic prison of circumstance. The by turns suspicious and desperately coquettish widow, Mme Popova, was inhabited in a convincingly physical way by Mezzo Soprano, Carolyn Dobbin. Baritone Adam Green as Smirnov, the bear of the title, had the perfect, big presence for the part, totally dominating the small stage with his physicality and his powerful baritone voice, and Mathew Boswell as the woefully abused manservant, Luka, was a pleasure to listen to with his seemingly effortless and warmly rounded bass-baritone voice.

Since Walton's piece was short, we were treated to an additional “Tatyana's Party Pieces”, still in Russia and re-imagining Onegin's Tatyana entertaining her guests in a parallel comedy world, with the exception of an appetiser for Eugene Onegin where Dobbin read rather than sang Tatyana's letter to Onegin and then Green sang, splendidly, Onegin's devastating reply.

Aside from this operatic foretaste, the rest of Tatyana's pieces were eclectic and light, showcasing Lyness' flair for reducing scores. There were sections of Rimsky Korsakov's Sheherezade for the five, excellent instrumentalists - Lyness on piano - . We were also served a Flanders and Swann Song of the Desert - or Mongolian Steppe - involving endless camels; and then Russian Prince Orlovsky, Carolyn Dobbin giving us a shaggy version of "Chacun a son Gout", the trouser-role aria from Die Fledermaus, wearing The Bear's fur hat.

MWO begin 2018 with the far more serious business of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, which opens their season at Theatr Hafren Newtown on the 24th of February and then tours from the 28th, visiting venues in Wales, including Aberystwyth Arts Centre; Pontio Bangor; Glan yr Afon Newport; Theatr Clywd Mold; Theatr Brycheiniog; Y Ffwrnes Llanelli and The Torch Milford Haven. As always, Studer directs and designs and Lyness is music director and conductor.

The opera will be staged in English. George Von Bergen will sing Onegin; Elizabeth Karani will sing Tatyana and Robyn Lyn Evans will sing Lensky. We surely have a treat in store...

Reviewed by: Jenny March

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