Classical Music: Exit, pursued by `The Bear'

Walton may be long gone, but his house and works still welcome eager students. By Della Couling
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The Independent Culture
"What use is a garden?" is a question only a Gradgrind would ask. The same question could be asked of the "Actor-Singer" master-classes, now in their seventh year, held in late summer in the Arcadian setting of La Mortella, the late William Walton's home on Ischia. What is different here from normal study/rehearsal conditions anywhere, one might ask?

For the answer, one must keep to the garden theme: although the actual work of these master-classes takes place indoors, it is the spirit of the spectacular gardens - created by Walton's widow Susana from a rocky hillside overlooking the sea - that dominates proceedings.

Each year, a group of talented young singers - this year from Britain, Germany, Portugal and Italy - are picked by audition to spend three weeks at La Mortella working with experienced professionals, the whole enterprise ending in a gala production in the rehearsal studios in the house, and this year in further performances on 1 and 2 November at the Buxton Opera House, Derbyshire.

What the beauty and creativity of La Mortella provide is a highly fertile, hothouse setting in which some of the singers at least blossomed incredibly, at times surprising even themselves.

The head gardener this year was Dr Jonathan Miller, directing Walton's short one-act opera (after Chekhov) The Bear. This is a work of tremendous energy, concentrated on the "bear" himself, Smirnov, here sung by Nicholas Forty. Miller drew from him a performance of quite extraordinary energy, fury, exasperation and sudden, astounding infatuation.

Jane Stevenson as Yeliena Popova, the young widow into whose life Smirnov storms first as creditor, then as lover, also sang well, and exuded the right degree of matronly indignation to begin with, before dissolving into delight that her lonely widowhood might be at an end. Roland Wood, as her servant Luka, provided more than a fine foil for the two main characters.

Wood also played a servant - Martino - in the other work on offer, Rossini's L'Occasione fa il ladro (directed by Patrick Young), but there is nothing subordinate in his singing, or his acting. This is a fine young bass, rather in the Bryn Terfel mould, an intelligent singer who can be confident of his future.

The other voice that stood out was the soprano Lorna Lisa Rushton in the main role of Berenice in the Rossini - a beautiful sound, secure technique, and already a confident negotiator of Rossini's fiendish tessitura. There is a richness in the lower register that hints at a future mezzo.

The two Italian singers, Dario Giorgele as Don Parmenione and Marina Comparato as Ernestine, did not have quite the assurance of the British contingent, possibly because of the less-than-ideal preparation for singers generally available in Italy.

The Portuguese tenor Fernando Cordeiro Opa, in the short role of Berenice's uncle, Don Eusebio, could have quite a career in character roles, in addition to more mainstream work. The German tenor Alexander Bassermann (Conte Alberto) produced a good sound, but has yet to learn to relax into a role.

So much for this year's crop. What the young singers got out of it was an experience of study in an inspirational and international setting upon which they will surely be drawing for some time to come.