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The Bartered Bride

Royal Opera House

ITreally is nuptial time at Covent Garden this season. Michael Tippett's The Midsummer Marriage caused us to think before Christmas, Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro will sweep us into spring, but it is Smetana's Czech classic that is putting a smile on our faces in the grey weeks when credit card bills remind us how generous/stupid/drunk (delete where applicable) we were in December.

Of course, The Bartered Bride is a classic if you are Czech; otherwise it is just a charming and enjoyable evening for the rest of us, as long as the production and singing is good. In both cases they are.

This is a revival of Francesca Zambello's 1998 production and remains fresh, even if it does tend to meander along until the third act. The exception, of course, being Charles Mackerras' conducting, which is vibrant from the first bar of that driving, and very Italian, overture. That this man who almost leaps on to the podium is in his 81st year, gives hope to us all.

Susan Gritton is the feisty Marenka, who is bartered by the man she loves, Jenik (a pleasing performance from Simon O'Neill). But there is more to this tale of rural Czech folk than meets the eye as Jenik attempts to stop Marenka's marriage to Vasek (Timothy Robinson), arranged by her father to pay off a large debt to Vasel's father, Micha (Mark Richardson). Peter Rose as Kecal, the marriage broker, provides most of the humour and moves sweetly between baritone and bass.

The stammer given to Vasek is misplaced in this day and age. It is used as an instrument to add to the comedy, but if anything slows things down. I would like to see the role played without the stammer; Vasek has enough about him to make him the village idiot without an impediment such as this (although running away from his stifling parents with the circus and, in particular, Esmeralda, the tightrope-walker, played by Yvette Bonner, proves that he is not so dumb).

The comedy and if the trading of women was prevalent at the time, then it is a strange subject to be lighthearted about should come from the libretto and Kit Hesketh-Harvey provides quite a few laughs with the translation, although I'm not sure the phrase "sod it" was common in 19th century Bohemia or Karel Sabina's original. Also, deep praise to Hesketh-Harvey for making this one of the most enjoyable operas sung in English.

The opera is mainly set outside what appears to be a giant barn, which obviously kept the Opera House carpenters out of the pub. The third act, though, comes alive with the arrival of the circus, which certainly adds to the value-for-money aspect of the production: opera, dancing, some traditionally Czech, some not, and trapeze artists. It is surprising that only one matinee has been scheduled for an opera that should attract children; blimey, there are enough of them in the production. Perhaps the Opera House should also have staged it during the school holidays and not after.

Marenka's third-act aria takes her to the edge of despair before Jenik drags her back by revealing that he is Micha's eldest son and, as a condition of the bartered contract, is eligible not only to marry her but pick up the 10,000 crowns he feel is his inheritance.

Smetana wrote The Bartered Bride because people said his work was too heavy and, although he was ambivalent about the opera, it remains his most popular. But it is not an adequate reflection of his work. Even though it is a celebration of being Czech, this nationalist had much more depth, and anyone with a spare six quid should fork out for the LSO's new recording of his Ma vlast, conducted by Colin Davis.

Review by Peter Wilson


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