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Bedrich SMETANA (1824-1884)
The Bartered Bride (1866)
Krusina - Neal Davies (baritone)
Ludmila - Yvonne Howard (mezzo)
Marenka - Susan Gritton (soprano)
Tobias Micha - Geoffrey Moses (bass)
Hata - Diana Montague (mezzo)
Vasek - Timothy Robinson (tenor)
Kecal - Peter Rose (bass)
Ringmaster - Robin Leggate (tenor)
Esmeralda - Yvette Bonner (soprano)
Royal Opera Chorus
Philharmonia Orchestra/Sir Charles Mackerras
rec. 15-13 December 2004, Blackheath Concert Halls, London. DDD
CHANDOS CHAN 3128 [56.11 + 77.19]

Smetana was the first Czech composers to make an international impression. His role as leader of the nationalist movement owed much to the encouragement and support of Franz Liszt. He remains one of the most important opera composers of the nineteenth century, and of his operas the comedy The Bartered Bride (Prague, 1866) is the most popular. Its distinctively national character is by no means a limitation, since its range of emotion is vivid and truthful.
Smetana felt so committed to this opera that he actually wrote the overture before the arrival of the libretto. The bustling activity which characterises its music prepares the way for the lively drama of the comedy to follow in the theatre. This was just as Mozart did in the overture to The Marriage of Figaro, which was the model to which Smetana turned. After initial failure, various revisions helped secure an enormous success within Smetana's lifetime. Among these were the addition of various national elements such as the dances which appear in each act.
As soon as the overture begins, it is evident that Mackerras and the excellent Philharmonia Orchestra have the music’s measure. There is a sparkling wit and vivacity, with clear articulation that is achieved without compromising the fast tempo. For all its popularity this music is not easy to perform; nor should its vitality be taken for granted.
When the drama begins the voices of the Royal Opera Chorus respond to the native Czech rhythms with élan and accuracy. However, it is in such ensemble scenes that issues of authenticity appear, as far as whether the English version is as idiomatic as the original Czech. To be sure, the diction is pure, but is the sound of the vocal music right? On balance, my vote goes to Zdenek Kosler’s recording on Supraphon; so too when the national dances are played out with choral participation.
On the other hand, the British cast is all one might wish it to be. Cast an eye down the list of personnel and the appetite is whetted by virtue of name and reputation. Susan Gritton, for example, sounds absolutely right in the role of Marenka, in terms of both age and sensitivity. Likewise Paul James Clarke is a rounded and noble Jenik, who responds to each opportunity to work with the other major characters. Tim Robinson a sympathetic Vasek, his characterization sensitive to the nuance of Smetana’s remarkable vocal writing. And above all, the ensemble scenes are well paced and as a result the sense of teamwork is palpable.
Kit Hesketh-Harvey’s witty translation makes its strongest mark through the words and deeds of the marriage broker Kecal, a role that is well taken by Peter Rose, who is idiomatic but not unbelievably eccentric. And the same might be said of the whole enterprise, which has much to commend it. For the potential purchaser, the issue as ever revolves around the attitude towards ‘original language’ and ‘opera in English’.

Terry Barfoot



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