Bedřich SMETANA (1824-1884)
The Bartered Bride (1866-70) [136:20]
Mařenka - Dana Burešova (soprano); Jenik - Tomáš Juhás (tenor); Kecal - Jozef Benci (bass); Vašek - Aleš Voráček (tenor); Micha - Gustáv Beláček (bass); Háta - Lucie Hilscherová (mezzo); Krušina - Svatopluk Sem (baritone); Ludmila - Stanislava Jirků (mezzo); Ringmaster - Jaroslav Březina (tenor); Esmeralda - Kateřina Kněžiková (soprano); Indian - Ondrej Mráz (bass); First Child - Maxim Dusek (treble); Second Child - Babette Rust (soprano)
BBC Singers/Andrew Griffiths; BBC Symphony Orchestra/Jiří Bělohlávek
rec. May 2011, Barbican Centre, London, UK
Sung in Czech. Text translations in French and English, but no Czech original.
HARMONIA MUNDI HMC 902119.20 [64:31 + 71:49]
The Bartered Bride has done very well on record and this new version can join the list of distinguished predecessors. For many years, Smetana’s most popular opera was the Czech opera, but nowadays it has been somewhat overtaken by Dvořák’s Rusalka and the great stage-works of Leoš Janáček. The Bartered Bride, however, has not lost its charm and I have greatly enjoyed this performance. Listeners are spoiled for choice when it comes to recordings. If you want a totally authentic Czech account, there is the Supraphon set with Gabriela Beňačková and Peter Dvorský as the lovers and the inimitable Czech Philharmonic under Zdeněk Košler. There is also a version in English with Sir Charles Mackerras and the Philharmonia Orchestra and Royal Opera Chorus on Chandos that has been acclaimed. Finally, if German is your language of choice, Rudolf Kempe’s famous recording with Pilar Lorengar and Fritz Wunderlich is still available on EMI. How does this newest version stack up against those?
First of all, no conductor today surpasses Jiří Bělohlávek when it comes to interpreting Czech music of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. He made a wonderful recording a few years ago of Janáček’s The Excursions of Mr. Brouček with the BBC forces and native Czech soloists, as on this Smetana set, one of the only Janáček operas Mackerras never recorded. As chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Bělohlávek did much to champion Czech music and especially to bring to the larger public works that have not been heard that often, such as the symphonies of Martinů and Suk. After listening a number of times to this Bartered Bride, it is clear that the BBC Symphony can sound as Czech as one of their native orchestras. The well-known orchestral excerpts, Overture, Polka, Furiant, and Skočná, burst forth with vitality and rhythmic acuity, and the BBC Singers do the choruses proud. If anything, both orchestra and chorus are more infectious than their counterparts on the Supraphon recording. When it comes to the soloists, though, everyone has favorites. I have always held Gabriela Beňačková high in my esteem in this repertoire. Her voice has a certain purity and warmth that places it above most others in Czech music. Dana Burešova in this new account may not erase memories of Beňačková, but she is very good. Her voice has the necessary lightness and no pronounced Slavic vibrato, even if she is a bit cooler than her predecessor. When it comes to the role of Jenik, Peter Dvorský and Tomaš Juhás are fairly evenly matched. The outstanding performance, though, in the new set is that of the stuttering Vašek, Aleš Voráček. He has quickly become my favorite of this particular cast. All of the other parts are also taken well. So, overall, The Bartered Bride is served superbly in this new recording. The sound, too, unlike some past efforts recorded at the Barbican Centre, has warmth as well as the necessary clarity. The opera really comes to life. I would love to see a video of the performance, even if it was not staged.
The Czech music specialist Jan Smaczny provides the notes in the accompanying booklet. He gives the background to the opera and a detailed discussion of what it took to get the work to its final, definitive form. He plays down the folk element and points out the more important influence of French, Italian, and German Romantic opera on the composer. There is, however, one black mark on Harmonia Mundi I have to mention. The text of the opera is given in French (presumably because the label is French) and English, but not in Czech. Furthermore, the English translation is a very loose one that does not follow the original. The translation is by Kit Hesketh-Harvey who took the part of the Indian (a circus performer) in the Mackerras English-language version, so the translation in the booklet is likely the one used on the Mackerras recording (which I have not heard). There is a note in the booklet directing the listener to Harmonia Mundi’s website for the original Czech libretto. Still, it would be cumbersome to follow that at the same time as reading the English version in the booklet. Better to go to Supraphon’s website where there is a side-by-side Czech libretto and English translation that closely follows the original text.
In all other respects, this is a fine addition to The Bartered Bride discography.
Leslie Wright 

This new Bartered Bride joins the best of its predecessors.