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Review: THE BEAR and AND I DECIDED..., Grimeborn Festival, Arcola Theatre

Two contrasting operatic works underline the importance of this festival

Review: THE BEAR and AND I DECIDED..., Grimeborn Festival, Arcola Theatre Review: THE BEAR and AND I DECIDED..., Grimeborn Festival, Arcola Theatre Two contrasting operas (more accurately, perhaps, operatic works) illustrate the importance of this annual festival, the kind of event to which only a theatre like The Arcola can do justice. Resisting the temptation to programme another boutique Bohème or a scaled down Sunday in the Park with George in the late summer come the bitter winds of 2023 may hurt the bottom line, but London must be big enough to nurture its talents and offer a platform for more outré work. Long Live Grimeborn!

That said, the first cab off the rank in this double bill is largely conventional, a lovely, warm, funny version of William Walton's 1967 one act opera, The Bear, adapted for Jan Karl Rautio's piano.

After a slightly pedestrian opening (director, Alexia Mankovskaya can afford to move her singers around the thrust stage a little more, Violetta Gawara's maid, Lusha, had her back to my section of the stalls for almost the whole time she was present), things take off with the arrival of the melodramatic creditor, Smirnov. Cue the bleakish humour in which one sees the hand of Anton Chekhov (who wrote the short story on which the opera is based) as the outwardly grief-stricken widow Popova and the foppish, churlish Smirnov first decide to duel and after ten minutes or so of flirty fighting, fall in love.

Miriam Sharrad and Alastair Sutherland have a lot of fun with the bickering and blustering, mining all its comic potential whilst never forgetting that the singing is critical, both voices rich in tone, balanced with the music and clear in diction. It's all highly amusing.

The tone shifts for And I Decided... a multimedia presentation with music by Daniel Felsenfeld and librettos by Robert Coover, Will Eno and Jennie Ketcham. It starts with an unnecessary framing device that tells us that we're delegates at a conference and then gives us (very rapidly) some biographical background about each of the women we will meet. I'd be amazed if anyone retained anything beyond their ages - it would have been much more user-friendly to introduce each case separately.

Speaking of user-friendliness, I can't have been alone in failing to hear clearly what was being sung - for an opera to go to the trouble of creating three pieces of video art (by Anastasia Tikhonova) but leave the surtitle facility unused, strikes me as an instance of misplaced priorities. It appears that there were points to be made about 21st century feminism but, in this most unforgiving of spaces bounded by brick and metal, I'm afraid I never got to hear them.

The Bear and And I Decided are at The Arcola Theatre until 7 September


From This Author - Gary Naylor

Gary Naylor is chief London reviewer for BroadwayWorld ( and feels privileged to... (read more about this author)

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