Royal College of Music – The Bartered Bride

Smetana
The Bartered Bride – Opera in three acts to a libretto by Karel Sabina [sung in an English translation by Kit Hesketh-Harvey]

Krušina – Ross McInroy
Ludmila – Anaïs Heghoyen
Mařenka – Sarah-Jane Brandon
Mícha – Edward Grint
Háta – Emilie Alford
Vašek – Alex Vearey-Roberts
Jenik – Tyler Clarke
Kecal – Jimmy Holliday
Ringmaster – Edward Hughes
Esmeralda – Suzanne Shakespeare
The Indian – Oliver Clarke

Royal College of Music Opera Chorus

Royal College of Music Opera Orchestra
Michael Rosewell

Jo Davies – Director
Bob Bailey – Designer
Anna Watson – Lighting design
Kay Shepherd – Choreographer


Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell

Reviewed: 28 June, 2010
Venue: Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music, London

This fine production of Smetana’s most popular opera started off with a fizzing account of its famous Overture with the lights in the auditorium of the Britten Theatre still fully lit. The small pit allows for a very immediate sound – here each of the string parts entered the fray successively with no loss of focus to the overall texture. Sometimes with the band going at full pelt the sound was almost too immediate, but it never was raucous or scrappy and throughout the evening there was a sense of enjoyment of the music allied to a precision of ensemble that was exhilarating.

Of course much of Smetana’s music is infectious and here its rhythms sprung, which adds to the sense of propulsion. It was a real shame that the popular Act Three ‘Dance of the Comedians’ was cut – and not only from a musical point of view either as director Jo Davies had shown in the other ‘dance’ passages of the score that she could create a fresh theatrical approach to them. However, with a lack of ‘extras” available, the decision to cut was understandable, although the piece could have been played as an orchestral entr’acte.

Davies’s success is to balance the lighter comedic moments almost seamlessly with the more dramatic and heartfelt ones. The generally dark and atmospheric designs of Bob Bailey provided settings that could be quite tense at times, and the use of the upper walkway for characters to impact on scenes where they have influence in the tale rather than direct involvement was clever. She also managed to make some of the characters more serious in nature than is sometimes the case, and without us losing sympathy for them.

Kecal was an instance in point. As portrayed here he was very much the marriage-contract fixer. He had definite signs of bringing a cynical, misogynistic and materialistic approach to his task. This Kecal was certainly not above threatening and bullying in back-room deals to get his way. Jimmy Holliday was the singer on this first-night evening (this production involves alternative casting) and he certainly brought these various character-traits out in his portrayal. Vocally he seemed happier in the lower bass reaches than in the higher ranges where he occasionally sounded a little pressured. He relished Kit Hesketh-Harvey’s English translation with its puns and witty musical jokes – I like the way that almost every low note is sung to the word “bass”. However, excellent diction was a quality of the entire cast, and the audience responded well to the humour – and there were no surtitles! Kecal’s first appearance was slightly undermined by being blocking – from one side of the auditorium he was almost invisible as sight of him was obscured by Ross McInroy’s Krušina.

The absolute vocal star of the evening was Sarah-Jane Brandon who played Mařenka. As with her Pamina in an RCM production of “The Magic Flute” some months ago she demonstrated an appealing and sincere stage presence, one allied to a formidable technique. Her voice is even, creamy and where needed has thrilling power. She knows how to sing with a secure and fluid sense of line and yet also knows how to sing off the words. The flung high notes in her final angry duet with Tyler Clarke’s Jenik were forceful and exhilarating. Mařenka has some of the most introspective arias, which Brandon delivered with aplomb. We shall undoubtedly hear a lot more of her: an enticing prospect.

Tyler Clarke’s Jenik was most personable, and he made him more sympathetic than usual. This Jenik’s motivation was always clear and genuine and the reconciliation with his father, Mícha, and Mařenka at the end was nicely enacted. Vocally he was sometimes occasionally overpowered by the orchestra – but he paced himself well and was a good match for Brandon. Vašek is a gift of a comic role and Alex Vearey-Roberts brought him to endearing vocal and dramatic life – largely by not overplaying the ‘simple’ card. As the two sets of parents Ross McInroy, Anaïs Heghoyen, Edward Grint and Emilie Alford made what they could of their opportunities. Heghoyen in particular made much of her strong and incisive mezzo. Suzanne Shakespeare was an engaging and bright-toned Esmeralda.

The chorus was good and certainly involved in some complex choreography, which they handled well. I liked the scene of the men playing their drinking games with bottles of Budvar. This scene involved some visually stimulating choreography – here to the ‘Furiant’. Also there were three male dancers (Scott Bishop, Joshua Barrow and Jamie Sutton) who contributed to a nightmarish vision of marriage options for Mařenka at the end of the first act. There was also wit aplenty – such as the projected slides of cute and cuddly farm animals to depict an idyllic country-life to persuade Jenik to break off his engagement with his beloved.

All in all this is a production that would be of credit to a professional company – and it provided an ideal showcase for exhibiting the talents that the Royal College of Music is so evidently nurturing so well.

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