The Bartered Bride [Comic Opera in Three Acts; Libretto by Karel Sabina; English translation by Kit Hesketh-Harvey]
Krušina – Donald Maxwell
Ludmila – Susan Bickley
Mařenka – Susan Gritton
Toby Mícha – Mark Richardson
Háta – Carole Wilson
Vašek – Timothy Robinson
Jeník – Simon O’Neill
Kecal – Peter Rose
Ringmaster – Robert Tear
Esmeralda – Yvette Bonner
Indian – Eddie Wade
The Royal Opera Chorus
The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Sir Charles Mackerras
Francesca Zambello – director
Alison Chitty – designs
Peter Mumford – lighting
Denni Sayers – choreography
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 6 January, 2006
Venue: The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London
“The Bartered Bride” has been a frequent visitor to the London stage in recent years, with the present production now enjoying its second revival. A work that has long been regarded as the Czech national opera might be thought to dictate its own mise en scène, and it is to Francesca Zambello’s credit that her production respects the essential nature of Smetana’s score, while making room for the deeper and more inward qualities that come through when the main characters reveal their innermost selves.
Indeed, the main stage set is readily adaptable to provide the unspecified work-building in which these figures variously encounter and confront each other, yet can equally well merge into the background for the crowd scenes in what is ostensibly a typical nineteenth-century Bohemian village. Enhancing this level of stylised but far from inauthentic rusticity are the unassertive but appealing designs of Alison Chitty and the equally restrained lighting of Peter Mumford. Much more arresting is the Englishtranslation by Kit Hesketh-Harvey: a world away from the cuteness once inflicted on this opera, and ingenious as well as immediate in its rhyming scheme, yet also one which avoids the self-conscious trickiness and tiresome mannerisms which so undermined David Pountney’s rendering of the libretto for the recent Royal Opera production of Nielsen’s “Maskarade”. The outcome for “The Bartered Bride” is a revitalising of this abundantly appealing work that rarely went ‘against the grain’ either of its musical content or dramatic essence.
Of course, a ‘character’ opera such as this cannot succeed without vocal characterisation of a high order, and in this the production was largely a triumph. Although she made her reputation in Baroque and Classical repertoire, Susan Gritton demonstrated an easy command of the broad emotional brushstrokes and sensitive nuances that together comprise Mařenka’s feisty but never unsubtle persona. Her Act Three aria was the emotional crux that it needed to be, while her involvement in the various plot contortions was guided by a conviction that was naïve only in its heart-on-sleeve directness. In matters of intonation and diction, too, Gritton is second to none among the British sopranos of her generation. If Simon O’Neill is marginally less convincing as Jeník, this is more to do with the ambiguityin his nature as Karel Sabina’s libretto presents it (is his bartering of Mařenka done out of selfless ingenuity, or is there an opportunist motive?) than in his actual singing – the high tessitura of the role being accommodated with little obvious strain. And, in his Act Two aria, O’Neill captured the emotional roundness of this long-lost heir-apparent who claims his birthright in decidedly meritocratic terms.
If marriage-broker Kecal is largely resistant to such uncovering of hidden depths, Peter Rose sends-up this bumptious conflation of Don Alfonso and Baron Ochs with due relish and theatrical presence. Rarely is the unfolding of plot tailored to frustrating every supposedly smart move that a character makes, to the extent that Kecal is made the parody of a profession ubiquitous in the rural life of his day – something that Rose’s well chosen histrionics duly serve to accentuate. The role of the hapless Vašek is more problematic in that what might have seemed an easy figure of fun a century ago today seems overtly sympathetic in his gauche slow-wittedness. Suffice to say that Timothy Robinson is fully at ease in the part – finding a gentle pathos in his wan soliloquy at the start of Act Three, then entering into the spirit of one who finds his unlikely métier in the rough and tumble of the circus.
As concerns the parental couples, both Susan Bickley’s soulful Ludmila and Donald Maxwell’s humane Krušina are laudable portrayals of roles too easy to make stereotypical; a pitfall into which Háta and Mícha fall more naturally, and where Carole Wilson’s mean-spiritedness and Mark Richardson’s overt blankness are tellingly deployed. Yvette Bonner’s quicksilver tone makes her a gem of an Esmeralda, and veteran Robert Tear comes up with a priceless cameo as the Ringmaster who sets in motion the travelling circus – to which Eddie Wade’s Indian makes a robust contribution and Denni Sayers’s lively choreography, colourful and eye-catching by turns, helps makes the most of this unlikely interlude.
Otherwise, this was once again Sir Charles Mackerras’s evening, and it would be hard to imagine a more complete or involving appraisal of the score: one whose natural effervescence never obscures the fact that these are real characters caught in authentic circumstances and exhibiting a genuine emotional response to their various dilemmas. Some scrappy playing in the Overture and early in Act One aside, the Royal Opera House Orchestra was on generally fine form; as responsive to the often-fleet tempos as keenly as it entered into the spirit of the ‘Polka’, ‘Furiant’ and ‘Dance of the Comedians’ which were Smetana’s belated but inspired additions to an opera whose evolution was as tortuous as its ultimate success has been enduring. Indeed, on the basis of this unpretentious but rarely inappropriate and always enjoyable production, “The Bartered Bride” seems sure to hold the stage for a long while yet.