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This was only my second performance of The Bartered Bride, the last one about 20 years ago at the London Coliseum and here it was in English again but at Covent Garden this time. Kit Hesketh-Harvey justifies his anachronistic translation with a number of points including the fact that it is easier for non-Czech speaking singers – naturally – and also that it can ‘help the comedy’. That is the problem because, in fact, there were precious few laughs in the first two acts despite the production team sitting near me ‘splitting their sides’ at every supposedly funny moment.

This is the second of eight operas written by Bedřich Smetana. The Czech libretto was by Karel Sabina who was also responsible for his first work, The Brandenburgers in Bohemia. Smetana himself conducted the first performance and its first outings were not a success. There are four versions with the original 1866 version being in two acts; by the third performance the composer had already begun to tinker with his opera which resulted in the first revision of 1869, the second that same year was now in three acts and the first performance of a so-called definitive version (now with new recitatives instead of spoken dialogue) was at the Provisional Theatre in Prague on 25 September 1870. It has become the only one of Smetana’s operas to gain a popular place in the repertory outside its homeland (though I suspect it is less ‘popular’ now than it once was). Smetana of course, preferred his later opera, Dalibor, and was very dismissive of Bartered Bride.

The characterizations are poor apart from the more rounded figures of Kecal, the marriage-broker, and Mařenka, the heroine. Vašek, for instance, is an odd one-dimensional soul with dimmed wits. Despite an article in the programme making excuses for him because of a domineering mother there is rather a lot of non-PC sneering at the poor stuttering simpleton in a green suit and big bow that his ‘Mamma’ had no doubt bought him. Making fun of the mentally challenged is an old theatrical device and is more sympathetically handled in L’Elisir d’amore and in the ballet La Fille mal Gardée. Bartered Bride shares a lot of the same bucolic character as Donizetti’s opera of some 30 years previous to Smetana’s composition and it remains by far the better of the two works.

In fact Bartered Bride is a bit of a creaky old piece and despite the support of the conductor Sir Charles Mackerras, part of whose eightieth birthday celebrations these performances are, is in need of a touch of the ‘authentic’ that seems so strangely important for some operas but not others. Conflating the first two acts into one possibly based on Smetana’s earliest ideas seems overdue. And if Bartered Bride is worthy of being staged then why not Wagner’s Das Liebesverbot and the Weber/Mahler Die drei Pintos, neither far removed from it in sound or spirit?

Set in a huge wooden barn so pristine I looked for sponsorship from Ikea, Kecal is hired to broker the marriage between Mařenka and Vašek, the son of Micha a wealthy landowner. Kecal is made aware of the relationship between Mařenka and Jeník and becomes determined to break them up. He works on Jeník who eventually ‘barters’ his bride away for 10,000 crowns much to the villagers’ consternation. There is often lots of folkloric jollity and prancing about but together it is ‘too long by half’. Unfortunately the very committed Royal Opera House chorus had no real energy or technique as dancers, however well they sang, and failed to bring the village scenes to much life.

Act III seems to be from an entirely different work with the arrival of the travelling circus. There are now two ‘turns’ of excellent comic timing to cheer everyone up in Robert Tear’s Ringmaster (his ‘sod it!’ on hearing of his ‘bear’s’ indisposition was memorable) and Eddie Wade’s Indian. There is a long and emotional, almost Verdian, solo for Mařenka that was a late addition by Smetana to his score. Here she vows never to marry, before a delightful quintet from both sets of parents and Kecal convinces her to marry Vašek because of Jeník’s seeming betrayal of their love. As the opera spirals to its inevitable happy ending, Mařenka has already tried to trick Vašek who becomes enamoured by the tightrope-walker Esmeralda (a perky Yvette Bonner). Jeník is revealed as the long-lost son of Micha. The terms of the contract with Kecal whereby Jeník gave Mařenka up allows her to marry either son and, of course, she chooses Jeník. A frightened child rushes in to exclaim a bear has escaped from the circus. In comes the ‘bear’ which pulls off its head revealing Vašek who announces he has joined the circus. As the happy couple are blessed the curtain falls.

The children through their innocence and joy of performance are a highlight of director Franceska Zambello’s staging. It was first put on in 1998 and is really more of a ‘show’ with just a hint of the choreography of Mary Poppins or The Lion King at times. The children had all the energy some of the adults appeared to lack.

Simon O’Neill making his Covent Garden début as Jeník is quite a Heldentenor discovery; among other awards he is a previous winner of a UK Wagner Society Prize (not always a sign of quality - and as their former chairman I should know!). He is definitely a future Walther and Siegfried. Unfortunately like many of his breed his acting was as wooden as the scenery. Mařenka was Susan Gritton who seemed as feisty as Katherine Hepburn when she first appeared; her character really never softened very much and she remained one of Smetana’s typically strong and assertive women. Both Ms Gritton and Timothy Robinson (Vašek) have appeared previously in this production; he did his best in this role that shows so little development to involve the audience in his predicament. Yvette Bonner, Robert Tear and Donald Maxwell (Krušina, Mařenka’s father) had also already appeared before, the latter two making up in presence for what they now lack in voice.

The bass Peter Rose was suitably conniving as Kecal, without entirely giving in to the broad acting this part would benefit from. What was good was how his lowest notes were reflected in the translation by repeated mentions of ‘base’. (By the way, when the translation had it sung at the end that Vašek did not have the ‘nature’ to be a husband I think we probably all knew what Kit Hesketh-Harvey is suggesting!)

Even I found myself, after enduring the first two acts, battered into submission and caught up in the colour, gaiety and occasional greater depth of feeling in Act III. (Much of the same experience I felt during the new film version of King Kong where a similar rather simple entertainment is spoilt by excessive length. In both these cases a judicious use of a pair of scissors would have been appropriate.) The opera was undoubtedly chosen for Charles Mackerras and his milestone birthday, and it obviously benefited from his immense knowledge and love for the music. He enthusiastically conducted an orchestra who were on top form themselves. He is one of the last surviving musical giants of his generation having begun conducting with Sadler’s Wells Opera nearly 60 years ago. Happy Birthday Sir Charles!



© Jim Pritchard



Photographs © Royal Opera House Covent Garden, photographer Catherine Ashmore.



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