Communist Setting Adds Little to an Average Performance of Smetana’s Masterpiece.

Opera North, The Bartered Bride, Kate Valentine (Mařenka) & Brenden Gunnell (Jeník) photo © Robert Workman (2)
Opera North, The Bartered Bride, Kate Valentine (Mařenka) & Brenden Gunnell (Jeník) photo © Robert Workman (2)

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bedrich Smetana. The Bartered Bride (sung in English with surtitles): Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Opera North/Anthony Kraus. (conductor), The Lowry Theatre, Salford Quays. 18.11.2014.

Singing Cast
Kecal, the village mayor: James Cresswell (bass).
Marenka, a village girl: Kate Valentine (soprano).
Jeník, Marenka’s lover: Brenden Gunnell (tenor).
Krusina, Marenka’s father: Peter Savidge (baritone).
Ludmilla, Marenka’s mother: Ann Taylor (mezzo).
Vasek, a shy stuttering city boy: Nicholas watts (tenor).
Tobias Micha, Vasek’s father: Stephen Richardson (Bass).
Háta, vasek’s mother: Fiona Kimm (soprano).
Jiri, Circus Manager: Campbell Russell (baritone).
Esmerelda, Circus ballerina: Jennifer France (soprano).

Director:Daniel Slater.
Designer: Robert Innes Hopkins.

Dance choreography by Vanessa Gray, revived by Tim Claydon.
Lighting Designer: Simon Mills.

This revival of Daniel Slater’s communist state take on Smetana’s colourful small town opera giacosa, as Mozart might have titled it, received warm applause from a very small audience at The Lowry. Originally seen in 1997, I wondered if the audience was small because they barely knew Smetana’s opera, or because they are tired by perversions of the composer’s original intent by Directors with a concept and their own agenda? Attendance at tonight’s La Traviata, the second most popular performed opera, might answer that. For myself, the self-indulgence of directors, supported by our subsidised opera companies, is a habit that seems to deleteriously affect the box office and the running fiscal deficit. Smetana’s opera is full of melody, pathos and humour and could, I suggest, build up an enthusiastic backing if deprived of this conversion to a small town in a communist state in 1972. After all, the composer could hardly know that his native Czechoslovakia would end up behind the Iron Curtain, which had in any case came down a decade before. The hammer and sickle symbols and the modern dress costumes, particularly for the women, were most unbecoming. The party apparatchiks carrying brief cases were largely superfluous too.

Initially Anthony Kraus was a little heavy handed with the orchestra – fine in the overture, but tending to drown out Brenden Gunnell’s not unappealing – or strong – tenor. The role of Jeník is central to the evolution of the plot and the surtitles should have reflected this. As it was there was a blank screen for many of his sung contributions. This was not the case for James Cresswell’s clearly enunciated and articulated singing; lacking only some lower tone sonority as the local town communist mayor who had a good few dollars, rather than roubles, in his pocket to influence decisions. Equally rather anomalous were the in-jokes about present day Russian leaders.

If the lead tenor struggled to be heard on occasion, the same could not be said of Kate Valentine as the other half of the central battling love story. Occasionally a little sharp at the top of her strong voice, she would have looked far more attractive in period dress than in jeans throughout. She acted well within the costume limitation to create a believable character. Nicholas Watts as the stammering shy city boy sounded as though he could sing a bigger role, while Stephen Richardson and Fiona Kimm were luxury casting as his parents.

The circus acts in the third act were well performed with Jennifer France a visually appealing Esmerelda, well capable of singing too!

Robert J Farr


For a second opinion on same production, See Bartered Bride

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