Dvořák Comes to Wessex in Lively Guildhall Production of The Cunning Peasant

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Dvořák, The Cunning Peasant (Šelma Sedlák): Soloists and Orchestra of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, Dancers of the Central School of Ballet, Dominic Wheeler (conductor).  Silk Street Theatre, Guildhall School of Music and Drama, Barbican, London, 5.11.2014 (CS)

Bĕtuška (Bathsheba) – Laura Ruhi-Vidal
Jeník (Joseph) – Lawrence Thackeray
Martin (Gabriel) – David Shipley
Václav (Reuben) – Robin Bailey
Veruna (Victoria) – Emma Kerr
Prince (Duke) – Martin Hässler
Princess (Duchess) – Alison Langer
Jean (John) — John Findon
Berta (Fanny) – Anna Gillingham

Director – Stephen Medcalf
Set designs – Francis O’Connor
Lighting – John Bishop
Choreography – Sarah Fahie

Bucolic Bohemia met The Merry Wives of Windsor and Far From the Madding Crowd in this lively, picturesque and well sung performance of Antonin Dvořák’s countryside comedy The Cunning Peasant (Šelma Sedlák, 1877) by the students of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

The (rather flimsy) libretto for The Cunning Peasant, the sixth of Dvořák’s eleven operas, was penned by Josef Otakar Vesely and it can safely be said that the opera’s initial success owed more to Dvořák’s perennially tuneful score than to Vesely’s clichés and commonplaces.  The opera has been compared to Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, but while it is true that it does bring together nobility and commoners in a jumble of love entanglements between members of different social classes, and makes much use of the ever-popular disguise motif, it has much more in common with the rural themes of The Bartered Bride.

The well-to-do farmer Gabriel is determined to marry off his daughter, Bathsheba, to Reuben, a wealthy merchant, dismissively casting aside Bathsheba’s own passion for the poor farm hand, Joseph. Aided by Victoria, Gabriel’s housekeeper, and the other young village girls, Bathsheba devises a ruse to thwart her father. She approaches the visiting Duke to ask for his help: unfortunately, both the nobleman and his valet, John, are immediately besotted by her beauty and determined to win her for themselves. The neglected Duchess and her maid, Fanny – whom John now scorns – join in the women’s wiles, and ultimately the men get the comeuppance for their patriarchal presumptions and unfaithfulness.

Director Stephen Medcalf explains in a programme note that he was anxious to avoid ‘the potential hazard of generalized Slavic folksiness’ and ‘partly in a response to the lively English translation by Clive Timms [which was also used for the Guildhall’s 1997 production of the opera] … we have transplanted the action from mid-19th century Bohemia to Thomas Hardy’s Wessex’.  It is a relocation that makes sense and, on the whole, works well.  As in Hardy’s novels and stories, there is a well-defined locale with rural customs, personal idiosyncrasies and joyous village music-making to the fore. The overall tone is one of affection and gentle ridicule, although a sharper irony occasionally alerts us to deeper messages.  The representation of class divisions within a rural community reminds us of novels such Far From the Madding Crowd (which ‘inverts’ the crossed-lovers, Bathsheba preferring the elevated Boldwood but coming to recognise the humble Gabriel as her true love), and there are even specific incidents which recall Hardyan worlds – such as the Maypole dancing which commences Act 2 of the opera and which echoes the spring celebrations in Tess of the d’Urbervilles at which Tess’s dancing entrances the onlooker, Angel Clare.  The names have been altered – Bathsheba for Bětuška, Joseph for Jenik – for clarity.  My only qualm related to the decision to transform the wealthy Václav, whom Bathsheba’s father intends her to wed, into a rapacious Jewish merchant, Reuben, who is consistently ridiculed by the other villagers; it left a slightly nasty taste in the mouth.

The production mingled folksiness and a ‘darker’ wry vision so typical of Hardy – during the overture we witnessed the eviction of a poor family, suckling child and all, down on their luck and unable to meet their landlord’s demands for rent due – and this extended into Francis O’Connor’s charming visual design too.  Tall, leaning timber frame houses, the odd slate missing for rural realism, seem straight from a picture-book Hansel and Gretel, and the bucolic ambience is developed through the clever metamorphosis of the slanting, interlocking bricks of the village wall into stylised branches.  The latter wend their way upwards forming a striking, twisting gnarled frame, suggestive of something more sinisterly Gothic, out of the Brothers Grimm.  John Bishop lights the stage beautifully, strong tones intimating changing emotions, especially in Act 2.

The chorus have a large part to play and the Guildhall singers were superb, entering the spirit of the work with style.  They were well-choreographed, too, by Sarah Fahie, singing with brio and moving freely, attentive to details of characterisation and expression; the women, especially, produced an appealing bright, open tone and the diction was clear.

Dvořák’s score is fresh and lively.  Conductor Dominic Wheeler captured the folksy ambience without sacrificing grace and refinement, and there was some rich string playing and lovely horn tunefulness which gave the accompaniment a warm glow.  The dances which accompany the May Day festivities at the beginning of Act 2 were particularly bright and enchanting.  Following an enchantingly intricate ‘dressing’ of the Maypole, rhythmic polka succeeded racing skočná, followed by swaying sousedská in a seamless musical flow, and the scene also witnessed some accomplished dancing by students from the Central School of Ballet whose gestures skilfully blended simplicity and artfulness, naturalistically embodying bucolic freshness and joy.

Some roles in the production were double cast and on this occasion (5 November) our Bathsheba was soprano Laura Ruhi-Vidal who made a strong impression dramatically and sang with a sweet tone, although at times she sounded a little strained at the top.  Her Joseph, tenor Lawrence Thackeray, was less comfortable in the role, often resorting to bellowing, and this was a pity as the linking pair of love duets in Act 2 for Joseph and Bathsheba are in many ways the musical ‘heart’ of the opera.  Martin Hässler’s Duke was a suavely handsome presence among the yokels, but while he used his tenor expressively, and showed that he can turn a shapely phrase, the intonation was unsettled by a rather uncontrolled vibrato, and the tone needed greater centring.  Alison Langer was a self-possessed and sharp-minded Duchess while Anna Gillingham (Fanny, the Duchess’s maid) and Emma Kerr (Gabriel’s housekeeper, Victoria) demonstrated comic nous, characterful singing and sure vocal technique.  Robin Bailey, as Reuben, and John Findon (stepping into the Duke’s valet’s boots at short notice, to replace the indisposed Samuel Smith) both had considerable stage presence and projected strongly.  As the ultimately defeated patriarch, Gabriel, David Shipley showed much promise.

This was an excellent ‘company’ performance.  Rusalka is the only one of Dvořák’s eleven operas which is firmly in the repertoire, but the Guildhall singers and instrumentalists made one think that the other nine might well be worth investigating.

Claire Seymour

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