Monday 10 September 2012

British Youth Opera - The Bartered Bride

Matthew Stiff (Kecal), Luis Gomes (Jenik) and chorus, British Youth Opera, Bartered Bride, Peacock Theatre 2012
Matthew Stiff (Kecal), Luis Gomes (Jenik) and chorus

For their first production in their September season at the Peacock Theatre, British Youth Opera chose to present their first ever production of Smetana’s The Bartered Bride, sung in Kit Hesketh Harvey’s English translation (originally made for the Royal Opera House production). We saw the first night, on Saturday 8 September.

For all its infectious music and apparently light-hearted popularity, The Bartered Bride remains a problematic piece. There is the depiction of Vasek, which though sympathetic, depends for its comic value on the character’s stutter. Plus the awkward fact that for a chunk of acts two and three, Jenik blithely assumes that Marenka will blindly trust him and quietly go along with his deception. Either he is horribly manipulative or simply egotistically selfish. But this is fundamentally a comedy, and if played straight the piece can be made to work well. This does, however, require the director to trust the piece.

The sad thing was that the director, Rodula Gaitanou, clearly did not trust the opera. She and designer Cordelia Chisholm had moved the setting to the 1950’s; this is definitely the time-period du jour in opera productions at the moment. Of course, 1950’s Czechoslovakia would mean addressing Communism, something other recent productions have done. Instead Gaitanou and Chisholm set the opera in Prague, Oklahoma, and the name was the only thing Czech about the setting. When the curtains opened we were in a dance hall in small town Oklahoma, the men all in Stetsons. It could have been a performance of Rogers and Hamerstein’s Oklahoma.

When a director moves the setting of an opera from its specified setting, the result generally falls into one of three categories. The new setting might illuminate new aspects of the score, or it might not illuminate but does no particular damage, or in some cases the new setting actively disrupts the score.

If Gaitanou had stuck to her small town Oklahoma setting from the first act, then the production might have fallen into the middle category, no illumination but no violence to the score either. After all, small town life is the same the world over though by removing the Czech setting you remove the resonance of all the folk dances.

But gradually, I became aware that extra details were being added. The act 1 finale was mostly taken up with a beauty contest, with a polka only being danced at the very end. Then during the opening of act 2, in the drinking song, the girls from the beauty contest were pawed by and set up with the older men. This was bartering of women indeed.

Vasek was treated as a purely comic character with a deal more twitching and stuttering than was necessary, but a very funny performance from Samuel Furness. But at the opening of act 3 we didn’t’ feel sorry for Vasek, there was no pathos just broad comedy. And his interaction with Jennifer France’s Esmeralda was simply too close to Frank in Some Mothers do Have Them, complete with double takes when ogling France’s exposed cleavage.

Act three was presented almost as pure sitcom, with highly stylised action. The lovely sextet done as a cabaret number, complete with fighting over the single microphone.

I won’t go on; there were numerous small things. It was all very funny and the cast were brilliant, that was the shame. It was just that too often the audience were laughing at some piece of stage business, not Smetana’s opera. And with Gaitanou’s treatment of the last act, we didn’t really take the action seriously.

A missed opportunity really, because the cast were first rate.

Katherine Crompton (Marenka) and Luis Gomes (Jenik), British Youth Opera, Bartered Bride, Peacock Theatre 2012
Katherine Crompton (Marenka)
and Luis Gomes (Jenik)
Katherine Crompton as Marenka has a lovely rich lyric voice. It sounds as if it has the potential to develop into something quite substantial. She presented Marenka as a beautifully sunny character, singing with a lovely warmth. And underneath there was the necessary toughness and a glorious vein of pathos in act 3. A radiant and touching performance.

I was familiar with Luis Gomes from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama where his performances in Midsummer Night’s Dream and Our Town impressed. He continued to impress here, as Jenik. He is a natural stage creature and quite compelling to watch, whatever he does. As Jenik he was a strong, rather rebellious character, but with a genuineness and warmth to him which made you forgive his machinations, singing with a nicely full lyric voice which seem to be produced easily and flexibly. He and Crompton made a lovely couple, developing a close, sparky relationship, whatever the production’s drawbacks. They made the performance well worth seeing and transformed our experience.

Matthew Stiff’s Kecal wasn’t quite the traditional interpretation; closer perhaps to Ricky Gervais playing Boss Hogg in The Dukes of Hazard. It was a masterly portrayal, with Stiff commanding the stage and delivering a nice line in patter. But the orotund bungler was gone, replaced by something rather harder edged, but still very funny.

Whilst I did not like the way Gaitanou developed the character of Vasek, I have to credit tenor Samuel Furness with a brilliant portrayal. He has an interesting, voice, rather stronger and more dramatic in the role than some portrayals, plus a great sense of comic timing.

The other characters were more or less cyphers, but Matthew Wright, Katie Connor, Ting Wang and Frazer Scott contributed cameos as Marenka’s parents and Jenik’s parents.

Simon Gfeller (Ringmaster), Jennifer France (Esmeralda) and chorus, British Youth Opera, Bartered Bride, Peacock Theatre 2012
Simon Gfeller (Ringmaster), Jennifer France (Esmeralda) and chorus
This was a small scale production, so that there were no extra acrobats, the circus performers were all members of the company. The result was that the march of the comedians at the beginning of act 3 was performed as a hilarious sequence of deliberately very bad circus acts. Simon Gfeller was an engaging and able ring-master. And Jennifer France as Esmerelda combined pulchritude with a sly twinkle in her eye and a neat voice.

From the opening notes of the overture, you knew that conductor Peter Robinson had this opera under his skin. The overture was crisp, lively and incisive. The Southbank Sinfonia are not the Vienna Philharmonic and they did take time to find their form. But they responded well to Robinson’s direction and helped make the evening sparkle.

With the removal of the Czech setting, the dances became more akin to social events rather than having the potential for something more. And some of the time, stage action replaced dancing. But the chorus entered with a will and managed to convincingly do choreographer Mandy Demetrious’ 1950’s style steps to Smetana’s Czech rhythms.

The Peacock Theatre is relatively small, but even so diction was excellent, especially as not all the cast were native English speakers.

Despite my reservations about the production, the performance had a wonderful verve and energy and the young artists’ enthusiasm was infectious.

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