Monday 3 November 2014

The Bartered Bride

The Bartered Bride - Opera North 2014 Photo Credit: Robert Workman
Photo Credit: Robert Workman
Smetana The Bartered Bride; Creswell, Valentine, Gunnell, Opera North, dir: Slater, cond: Holmes; Grand Theatre Leeds
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Oct 31 2014
Star rating: 4.5

Entrancing revival of production in Soviet-era setting

Daniel Slater's production of Bedrich Smetana's The Bartered Bride debuted at Opera North in 1998. For this latest revival we caught the performance on 31 October 2014 at the Grand Theatre, Leeds and the production seems to be in good health and as sharp as ever with James Creswell as Kecal, Kate Valentine as Marenka, Brenden Gunnell as Jenik plus Peter Savidge, Ann Taylor, Nicholas Watts, Stephen Richardson, Fiona Kimm, Campbell Russell and Jennifer France. Daniel Slater directed with assistant director Jack Furness, designs by Robert Innes Hopkins and lighting by Simon Mills. The conductor at this performance was James Holmes.

We often forget that Smetana's The Bartered Bride was written at a time when Bohemia/Czechoslovakia was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and that the apparently carefree village Czech life depicted was in some ways a contribution to the Nationalist movement which was resisting Austro-Hungarian domination, with the imposition of the German language and Germanic culture.

Slater's production hinted at this by re-setting the opera in a Czech village in 1972, when Czechoslovakia was dominated by Russia. Kecal (James Creswell) became the Mayor, but apart from this the plot was successfully transformed. The result might have been grim, but was in fact delightful with much comic interaction between the villagers, and Kecal with his party henchmen. Smetana's opera went through lots of revisions and only acquired its recitative (in place of spoken dialogue) in the last revision. Slater had replaced much of the recitative with dialogue which kept the work far pacier. Slater's production rather neatly addressed the opera's fundamental problem, why Jenik does not say something more explicit to Marenka about his deception. Here, virtually the entire action took pace with people around and Kecal's henchmen (Ross McInroy and Arwell Price) were completely ubiquitous.

Brendan Gunnell, Kate Valentine - The Bartered Bride - Opera North 2014 Photo Credit: Robert Workman
Brenden Gunnell and Kate Valentine
Photo Credit: Robert Workman
Kate Valentine made a lovely vibrant Marenka, singing with a fine lyric sense but with the strength and vibrancy of tone to rise over Smetana's sometimes lively orchestration. She had a feisty personality to go with the mane of red hair but brought intense poignancy to the third act, which she combined with charm and personality.

The American tenor Brenden Gunnell was a name new to me. He had a slightly dead-pan stage demeanour but the personality and rumpled charm to make you feel Marenka might see something in him and he managed to make Jenik seem rather less deviously nasty than usual. Gunnell had quite a high tension voice, which works well for Jenik and he brought a vibrancy and some romantic charm to the role. He developed a lovely, sparky relationship with Valentine's Marenka, and the two were entrancing in the romantic moments.

James Creswell was a complete idiotic delight as the self-important Kecal, oblivious to the undertones going on around him and full of confidence in his own abilities. Creswell delivered Kecal's patter song with aplomb. Nicholas Watts (currently a member of the Opera North chorus) displayed a fine lyric tenor voice and sang Vasek beautifully, bringing a sly charm to the role. Though it has to be admitted that there were one or two moments when his light tenor was rather dominated by the orchestra.

The Bartered Bride - Opera North 2014 Photo Credit: Robert Workman
Photo Credit: Robert Workman
Peter Savidge and Ann Taylor were Marenka's parents, bluff meaning-well and not a little befuddled by Kecal. Stephen Richardson and Fiona Kimm were wonderfully funny as Jenik's status conscious, far richer parents. Campbell Russell was the Circus Manager with his patter full of awful jokes, whilst Jennifer France was a charming Esmeralda who was part of an alarmingly crazy circus troupe (the choreography was by Vanessa Gray).

James Holes and the orchestra launched into a fast, furious and brilliant account of the overture. Throughout they gave us some lovely sprung rhythms, lively detail and lyric moments.

The Bartered Bride was performed in Leonard Hancock and David Pountney's English translation and diction was excellent.

The Bartered Bride is not performed anything like as often as it should be. It is one of those operas which will always have a number of people in the audience who have never seen it. This was anything but a routine revival, and all of us whether newcomers or not, were entranced.
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