Sunday 8 January 2006

The Bartered Bride

Friday night’s performance of Smetana’s The Bartered Bride at the Royal Opera House was the first night of this revival. It might only have been a revival, but with Sir Charles Mackerras in charge, we were guaranteed a sparkling evening. His opening speed for the overture sounded dangerously fast, but the orchestra responded well producing playing which was crisp and made the music sound new minted.

This was a good indicator for how the evening was going to go; no startling revelations, just a wonderful return to basics. Nothing was musically hackneyed and they played Smetana’s score without ever making it seem routine. Quite magical.

It helped that Mackerras was supported by a fine cast. Susan Gritton was returning to the role of Marenka and is as enchanting as ever. She has developed as an artist and this shows in the way she helps the character of Marenka to develop. From the opening, there is something dynamic and capable about her Marenka, she even wears trousers. Gritton’s voice has a lovely focussed quality to it and Smetana’s lyrical music responds to the shapely line of her voice. In Act 3, when things get problematical for Marenka, Gritton was profoundly touching. Because Gritton’s Marenka has been so capable and dynamic, she renders the rather unsatisfactory ending almost acceptable; you feel less annoyed than usual that Jenik has put her through so much pain for his schemes.

As Jenik Simon O’Neill was a large, lovably rogue rather than someone really duplicitous. Thoughtless and charming, he helped make relationship between the two work. O’Neill’s voice does not quite have the easy facility at the top that would be ideal in the role, he tended to go a little steely under pressure; but this was an impressive debut and I hope to hear more of him. It perhaps helps to understand O’Neill’s voice when you learn from his website ( that he is singing his first Parsifal in concert in New Zealand this year.

Both O’Neill and Gritton seem to have a gift for comedy and developed a believable relationship in Act 1, I especially liked their duet where which took place whilst they were supposedly painting a barn door. Much horseplay with (non existent) paint was mimed with a naturalness and convincingness that made it amusing and characterful rather than embarrassing.

The Royal Opera supported the 2 principals with a fine cast. Timothy Robinson repeated his amusing but touching Vasek; managing to be funny but making you feel sorry for him at the same time. This sense of comedy through believable characterisation rather than sending the character up was a feature of Peter Rose’s wonderful Kecal. Here was a singer who could really sing the role, not just make buffo noises, and developed Kecal’s overweening character with a degree of subtlety. I always love Peter Rose’s work and this was no exception.

Marenka’s parents were played by Donald Maxwell and Susan Bickley; luxury casting which paid of was the two singers made much of the little that Smetana gives them. The same can be said for the evening smaller roles of Jenik’s parents, played by Mark Richardson and Carole Wilson. The septet was a joy.

Though the musical side was entrancing throughout, I remain unconvinced by Francesca Zamballo’s production. Everything takes place in a pale wood barn, with a brightly lit yellow cyclorama as backdrop. The result looks very New England. There is much coming and going to little purpose, assembling and deconstructing ladders, tables etc. This purposeless action extends to the large choral dance numbers which are one of the joys of this opera. Rather than giving us something convincingly folk-like, helping to build the character of the chorus, we get a series of too clever, over choreographed movements where all sorts of harvest festival iconography is brought on. I just longed for Zamballo to have the courage to simply let the entire chorus dance a polka properly for any length of time. What you lose is the sense of the type of community that the opera takes place in, which weakens things when the going gets tough in Act 3.

The opera was sung in Kit Hesketh-Harvey’s rhyming translation. Diction was quite adequate but the opera house displayed sur-titles as well; though their usefulness was compromised as it was difficult to read them because of the glare from the bright yellow light of the cyclorama.

As ever the circus episode was highly entertaining and I must commend both the circus performers and the singers for their fine integration into a single ensemble. It can’t be easy mixing singers, even acrobatic ones, with real acrobats.

This was an immensely enjoyable evening and a wonderful way to help celebrate Sir Charles Mackerras’s 80th birthday.

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