United Kingdom Smetana, The Bartered Bride (comic opera in three acts): Orchestra and Chorus of Opera North/James Holmes (conductor), Lyric Theatre, The Lowry, Salford, 19.11.2014 (MC)
Sung in English – English translation by Leonard Hancock and David Pountney with dialogue by Daniel Slater
Kecal – James Creswell
Mařenka – Kate Valentine
Jeník – Brendon Gunnell
Krušina – Peter Savidge
Ludmila – Ann Taylor
Vašek – Nicholas Watts
Tobias Micha – Stephen Richardson
Háta – Fiona Kimm
Jiří – Campbell Russell
Esmeralda – Jennifer France
Kecal’s assistants: Ross McInroy & Arwel Price
Béla: Nichola Unwin
Miloš: Stephen Briggs
Ivan: Joshua Simpson
Villagers: Chorus of Opera North
Dancers & Circus Performers
Director: Daniel Slater
Set and Costume Designer: Robert Innes Hopkins
Lighting Designer: Simon Mills
Choreographer Vanessa Gray
Revival Choreographer: Tim Claydon
Once you have seen the magical 1978 John Dexter production of The Bartered Bride from the New York Met conducted by James Levin with the cast of Teresa Stratas (Mařenka), Nicolai Gedda (Jeník), Jon Vickers (Vašek) and Martti Talvela (Kecal) it’s hard to imagine anything else living up to the same standard. Nevertheless this fine production by Opera North directed by Daniel Slater will linger long in the memory.
In this revival of Opera North’s 1998 production Daniel Slater has shrewdly brought Smetana’s folk-opera composed in 1866 forward a hundred years to 1972 a time when the country was under Soviet control. In the production this was shown by the Soviet hammer and sickle being flown on bunting alongside the Czech flag and local officials wearing red party ribbons with Soviet looking uniforms while a number of young people were wearing royal blue blazers or skirts, the uniform of the Pioneer organization of the Socialist Youth Union. Before each act commenced the net curtain showed three Soviet propaganda posters each with a head and shoulder picture of a female Soviet worker holding a hammer and sickle. Written on each poster was the words ‘Liberation: song and dance in the Village of Belcice, 9th May 1972’. Amusingly one of the posters had been shoved to a slight but ungracious angle and with temerity someone had drawn on the face a moustache, beard and glasses.
In the Czech village of Belcice the action was set around a large relatively low wooden stage or platform with a high post at each corner from which bunting and string lights were hung. What small section of the ground was visible was partially covered in wood chips. In each corner of the set there was a tall wooden pole, one a pylon containing an electricity transformer and power line and a second holding couple of loud speakers as part of a basic PA system. Later a large travelling caravan appeared at the rear of the wooden platform which would open up to reveal a brightly coloured travelling troupe of circus performers.
Giving a show stealing performance was Kate Valentine as Mařenka. Looking distinctive with her flowing red tresses she was decked out in blue jeans and a long light green waistcoat over a coral red check shirt. The soprano sang Mařenka’s arias confidently from her first note to the last. With utmost conviction she projected her voice easily through the hall and her diction was a model of clarity. Under pressure her voice revealed a pronounced vibrato which wasn’t unattractive and it never intruded. Her voice is impressive and she does vulnerability well but her acting never felt quite natural requiring her to relax more on stage.
Bright toned tenor Brendon Gunnell in the role of male lead Jeník, unlike Kate Valentine, didn’t make an instant impression. Dressed in light grey trousers, white shirt and a then mega-trendy mid-brown bomber style jacket with a narrow crimson scarf the fair haired Gunnell took some time for his voice to settle into the role. Gunnell’s projection is not strong and during his first act duet with Mařenka he was totally overpowered by the orchestra for which I suppose conductor James Holmes can take some blame.
The best all round performer by some distance was bass James Creswell who brought vocal heft and dramatic intensity to the role of Kecal the devious village mayor/Soviet party official. Displaying his authority and rank easily in a smart grey suit and tie with an ever present red party ribbon the impressive Creswell convinced, singing with rich and vividly clear tones. At one point Creswell had to dig deep to reach his lowest register which I didn’t think he was going to achieve.
Doing a decent enough job as the stammering would-be suitor Vašek was Nicholas Watts but I was never totally convinced that the part suited him. Colourful circus master Jiří, tenor Campbell Russell, made a real impact in a short space of time and I would like to see him in more prominent roles. Showing her versatility was Jennifer France as Esmeralda the balletic puppet of the Circus troupe. The chorus were satisfactory throughout and the orchestra improved fairly quickly after an unsteady, noisy start. I was struck by the excellent troupe of clowns in their vibrant colours achieving some fine gymnastics stunts. All in all this production of The Bartered Bride by Opera North provided a genuine evening’s entertainment and can be highly recommended.
For a second opinion on same production see: The Bartered Bride