BBC Symphony Orchestra/Bĕlohlávek – The Bartered Bride

The Bartered Bride – Comic Opera in three acts to a libretto by Karel Sabina [sung in Czech with English surtitles; concert staging by Kenneth Richardson]

Jeník – Tomáš Juhás
Mařenka – Dana Burešová
Kecal – Jozsef Benci
Krušina – Svotapluk Sem
Ludmilla – Stanislava Jirků
Vašek – Aleš Voráček
Ringmaster – Jaroslav Březina
Esmeralda – Kateřina Kněžíková
Indian – Ondrej Mráz
Háta – Lucie Hilscherová
Micha – Gustáv Beláček
First Child – Maxim Dusek
Second Child – Babette Rust

BBC Singers

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Jiří Bělohlávek

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 20 May, 2011
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Jiří Bělohlávek Jiří Bělohlávek. ©Clive BardaAlthough it has enjoyed frequent revival on UK stages over recent years, “The Bartered Bride” seems always to have been given in English translation, so making this concert performance conducted by Jiří Bělohlávek – the latest in a series which has seen welcome revivals of operas from Janáček and Martinů – the more worthwhile.

A work that has long been regarded (if not at its 1866 premiere, then at least its definitive version four years later) as the foundation of Czech national opera might be thought to dictate its own mise en scène, and it is to Kenneth Richardson’s credit that his concert staging – in which only the singers’ attire indicated anything in the way of cultural locale – complemented the essential nature of Smetana’s score, while making room for the more hidden qualities that come through whenever the main characters reveal their innermost selves. With an all-Czech cast, moreover, there was no doubt as to the idiomatic quality of the singing: those familiar with Kit Hesketh-Harvey’s stylish translation used in the Royal Opera’s recent production may have found Paula Kennedy’s surtitles a little mundane, though these were never less than serviceable as well as enabling one to follow the convolutions of the plot while savouring the inimitabilities of the Czech language.

Dana Burešová as Mařenka. Photograph: www.danaburesova.euOf course, an opera such as this is unlikely to succeed without the requisite vocal characterisation and in this respect, too, the performance was hardly to be found wanting. Not least Dana Burešová, wholly in command of the keen emotion and sensitive nuance that comprise Mařenka’s feisty yet vulnerable persona. Limpid and affecting, her Act Three aria was the emotional crux it needed to be, while her involvement in the various plot contortions was guided by a conviction that appeared naïve only in its expressive directness. If Tomáš Juhás was in any way less convincing as Jeník, this was more to do with his ambivalent nature as Karel Sabina’s libretto conveys it (is his bartering an act of selfless ingenuity or is there an opportunist motive?) than his singing – the high-lying tessitura accommodated with absolute poise while, during his Act Two aria, conveying the resolve of a long-lost heir-apparent reclaiming his birthright in audaciously meritocratic terms.

If Kecal is resistant to such uncovering of hidden depths, then Jozef Benci projected the bumptious marriage-broker with tangible relish and without resorting to superficial parody. With a plot tailored to the frustration of every would-be smart move that he makes, Kecal became the stereotype of a profession ubiquitous in rural life from that era – something that Benci’s coercive bearing readily served to accentuate. The role of Vašek is more problematic in that what might once have been an easy figure of fun now seems overtly sympathetic in his slow-wittedness. That said, Aleš Voráček evinced a gauche indecisiveness and, in his wan soliloquy at the start of Act Three, a gentle pathos which were wholly in character; before entering into the spirit of one who finds his unexpected metier in the anarchy of the circus. As to the parents, Stanislava Jirků’s softly eloquent Ludmila and Svatopluk Sem’s lyrical if overly bland Krušina were well contrasted with Lucie Hilscherová’s mean-spirited Háta and Gustáv Beláček’s blithe Mícha in portrayals that likewise avoided caricature. Kateřina Knĕžíková’s gossamer tone was ideal for Esmeralda, while Jaroslav Březina’s breezy turn as the Ringmaster and Ondrej Mráz’s robust Indian made fitting contributions to this unlikely yet appealing Act Three interlude.

Although seeming marginally under-strength in the crowd scenes, the BBC Singers lacked nothing in gusto. For his part, Bělohlávek directed a vivid and yet perceptive account of a score with which his familiarity did not for a moment risk complacency: one whose overt high-spiritedness never detracted from the presence of real characters who exhibited genuine emotions. The Overture may have lacked the propulsion which others have brought to it, but the commitment of the BBC Symphony Orchestra was never in doubt; while entering fully into the spirit of those once-familiar encores the ‘Polka’, ‘Furiant’ and ‘Dance of the Comedians’ that were Smetana’s belated but also inspired additions to an opera whose initial evolution was as protracted as its ultimate success has proved enduring. Indeed, while “The Bartered Bride” seems certain to hold the stage for a long while yet, a performance such as this only reaffirmed its standing as a masterpiece of Romantic Opera.

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