From the opening wail of despair to the closing passionate duel, The Bear performed by Opera Anywhere at Waterperry Gardens on Friday night hit high notes, high drama and unexpected humour. Rosie Clifford as the widow Popova was suitably over- dramatic in her self-indulgent mourning and glorious efforts to maintain the façade of her failed marriage beyond the death of her husband in spite of eloquent imprecations from her ageing family retainer to move on. Her delusions are then shattered by the arrival of one of her husband’s creditors, Smirnov, demanding payment.
Smirnov played slickly and with great humour by Michael Craddock challenges Popova’s world view and suborns her self-indulgent mourning. Craddock’s loitering on the vowels of when contemplating the debt of “inoooordinate” size, Popova’s alluring “diiiiiimples” and his threat to “haaaaang” himself had the audience in stitches of laughter. Ultimately though the audience become aware of the attraction between Smirnov and Popova in their echoing refrains and complimentary melodies, long before the characters admit their passions.
Walton’s music at times acted in firm counter-point to the action and at other times lent a feeling of the helter skelter Wurlitzer scores of silent movies. In fact the score was simply, precisely and eloquently performed by Nick Planas on woodwind and Nia Williams, musical director, on piano and the wonderful demi-open air auditorium at Waterperry Gardens has no need of the Blackpool glitz of a Wurlitzer to be a beautiful and unique venue of great charm and intimacy. The audience also had the privilege of an extended interval to picnic in the renowned gardens and in the twilight of a beautiful English summer’s evening we wandered along the Virgin Walk and eventually settled on a view of the sunset and glorious herbaceous beds in the Vase Garden to consume our delectable comestibles.
Then back to the auditorium for Menotti’s The Old Maid (I can still hear Miss Pinkerton’s cries of “Miss Todd, Miss Todd”) and The Thief, a wonderfully laconic Nicolas Moodie. In contrast to The Bear’s roots in Chekhov’s classical drama this piece was originally written for performance on American radio, which was uniquely and imaginatively reflected in Paula Chitty’s set design and direction. Again this was a piece full of disarming humour – who would have thought the repeated refrain of “how’s the weather” would have the audience in gales of laughter. Further Lianne Birkett’s surly and sultry performance as Miss Todd’s servant Laetitia raised many snickers, but Catrin Lewis as Miss Todd’s busy body friend Miss Pinkerton was the hilarious embodiment of a 1950s prude.
For me the only slight flaw in a perfect evening was that both pieces centred on exposing the foolishness of women but I fear this is being pernickety as all of the male characters also had their moments of arrogance and idiocy. Overall this was a whirlwind tour of a wide range of human emotions enlightened by the incision of humour, excellent singing, enjoyable performances and simple staging in evocative surroundings. I would heartily recommend Opera Anywhere and then immediately contradict myself and recommend attending a performance at the auditorium at Waterperry Gardens. But I make no apologies; as tonight’s performance demonstrated so well, we’re all human.