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’.