Façade & The Bear

A William Walton double bill
Linbury Studio Theatre. The Royal Opera House. London.

Review by Polly Hope

What a treat to have such a double bill. Walton is not much produced these days, so a delight and a surprise.
The Linbury is not a very jolly venue, all dark grey metal in the bowels of the main house. Not a drop of red velvet or gold leaf. A chilly atmosphere for opera, and you can feel the chill as the audience troops rather silently into the auditorium.

Oh but FAÇADE, how delicious, what a most perfect work. I grew up listening to an original recording of Edith Sitwell herself shouting out her surrealist verses. She wasn't a very good performer but Walton's music entranced me as a child and the gobbledy-gook words were pure magic. The work, a linked series of weird surrealist poems, tells stories of Alpine meadows, lazy and silly waltzing girls, oriental mysteries, drunken old peers and so forth. Sitwell's words make music themselves and work as a sort of percussion aligned with the music.

This performance, read, sung, or what ever you call the way the two brilliant young artists of the Opera House perform this piece, is magnificent. Hilary Brennan and Thomas Guthrie alternate performing the poems, well not quite, sometimes one of them does three poems and sometimes the other does two. Not a word of these often tongue twisting verses is lost and the South Bank Sinfonia in the pit conducted by Steven Moore is deliciously witty and exact.

This work was first performed in 1922 and much to my surprise sounds as fresh and pertinent as ever. Grab yourself a recording, there are many available, it all sounds contemporary and right for now. Well done everyone.

After the interval THE BEAR, which I must say I have never either seen or heard before. It was written forty years late than Façade and the music is excellent. It hasn't the wit of Façade and isn't a pastiche of styles, though a few Russian musical quotes do slip in. A three hander about someone trying to collect debts. Pistols at the ready, a nincompoop servant, a rustic landowner and a sultry widow. Great problem is that as no one knows the work and not a single word could be understood, {all three singers are foreigners,] so us in the audience had little idea of what the plot was or the witticisms used. Obviously clever stuff as the story originated from Chekhov and he didn't get plot lines wrong. No place for sous titles in the Linbury. Pity for they are needed even if the work is sung in English…

The set was pretentious wooden picture frames up the wall and all over the floor for the poor singers to stumble about on and the lighting dire, all silly modern stuff when all that was needed was a sofa and a door.

Still the singers sang beautifully and the orchestra was perfect, so who am I to complain? I read the story up when I got home. The usual operatic ingredients, lust and money.

A treat of an evening. Opera houses, especially in these small studio theatres, which so many houses now have, should dig around in their archives for such forgotten gems.