United Kingdom Garsington Opera 2019  – Bedřich Smetana, The Bartered Bride: Soloists, Garsington Opera Chorus, Philharmonia Orchestra / Jac van Steen (conductor). Garsington Opera at Wormsley, 8.6.2018. (CR)
Director – Paul Curran
Designer – Kevin Knight
Lighting designer – Howard Hudson
Choreographer – Darren Royston
Mařenka – Natalya Romaniw
Jeník – Brenden Gunnell
Kecal – Joshua Bloom
Vašek – Stuart Jackson
Krušina – Peter Savidge
Ludmila – Heather Shipp
Mícha – Paul Whelan
Háta – Anne-Marie Owens
Circus Master – Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts
Esmeralda – Lara Marie Müller
Indian – Simon Dye
The Bartered Bride suffers from the same potential problem as so many stage works in the French opera-ballet tradition, where the frequent interludes for dancing can easily obstruct a lean and intelligible narrative trajectory. Paul Curran’s production of Smetana’s masterpiece, indelibly associated with the rise of Czech nationalism, overcomes that by successfully integrating the dances within the world of 1950s England that he chooses as the setting for this work, and above all for the colourful and thrilling spectacle of the circus entertainers which rewards the flagging attentions of a sated audience after the long interval. Liberties are necessarily taken – for example, the chorus do not dance the steps of the Czech polka or furiant, but rather the moves of the then-fashionable jive, and rock and roll styles, as well as a more traditional dance around the maypole in Act I.
The tensions of that dichotomy subtly run through this production. Those who would see this setting as a cosy, nostalgic retreat into the apparently settled, ordered and increasingly prosperous world of post-War England in the 1950s are also confronted with elements of creeping Americanisation that surely mark the dilution, perhaps even decline, of that society – a couple of leather-jacketed young men with slick back hair who would rather hear Elvis on the gramophone than Smetana in the opening village hall dance; a few characters (including Jeník) wearing jeans; and Kecal, dressed in a pin-striped double-breasted suit and co-respondent shoes, resembling more an American businessman than a village mayor, motivated by money and profit in his attempt to arbitrate in relations between the parents of Mařenka and Vašek.
The production works well in conjunction with Jac van Steen’s measured but still spirited conducting of the music. Although the dances probably stand out as the most vivid aspect of the score for most listeners, here they are more closely integrated within the overall musical texture rather than merely cutting a furious dash to make an effect for their own sake, just as their choreography on stage made sense in relation to the dramatic context of the production. Where the strings of the Philharmonia Orchestra are pliant and airy, the brass offer gravitas.
The cast of singers characterise the roles idiomatically, which is important in a plot which is otherwise fairly thin and uncomplicated. Leading the way is Natalya Romaniw as a powerful and determined Mařenka, perhaps even a touch strident at times but demonstrating that, ultimately, she is no bride to be merely bartered away. Complementing her is Brenden Gunnell’s Jeník, her lover, more lyrical of voice perhaps, but living up to the hefty tenor part even so, and unflinching as he confronts the disapproval of the villagers in the pub who do not yet understand his ultimate scheme. Stuart Jackson acts the part of the stuttering, feeble mummy’s boy Vašek effectively, giving the character a sort of whine in addition to the effete repeated syllables written into the music, which is no mean achievement for the professionally-accomplished singer that Jackson is, where it is actually a challenge to sound less than musical.
Joshua Bloom is a comically strenuous Kecal as he seeks to arrange matters such that Mařenka may be married off to Vašek, rather than anybody else. That may mitigate against both the more social realist dimension of this production which Curran otherwise seems to map out so meticulously, and being able to take Kecal seriously enough that he could he credited with trying to control the course of events for as long as he does in the drama. But at a purely choreographic level his performance is enjoyable and commensurate with a certain slapstick element in this staging. Both sets of parents are played in a more down-to-earth fashion by Peter Savidge and Heather Shipp, and Paul Whelan and Anne-Marie Owens respectively, contrasting with the more vividly drawn roles mentioned above, which also aids the course of the drama as something more than an entertaining farce. All comes right in the end, then, but there is romance, heartache and jollity along the way, making for a winning summer’s evening.