Liz Coggins reviews Opera North’s production of Smetana’s The Bartered Bride.
It was in 1981 that I first saw Opera North’s production of The Bartered Bride. It was part of my mother’s inauguration programme for me to learn to appreciate the delights of opera. Choosing the right operas for people who are just starting out as opera goers is so important she used to declare. And mother, whose operatic career was brought to a sudden end by the onslaught of war followed by marriage and motherhood, certainly knew best.
The production I remember was folksy and set in Bohemia in the mid 19th century. So I must say I was rather sceptical and curious about how Daniel Slater’s production, catapulted from this fairytale setting to the Eastern Block of the 1970’s, would work despite the critics acclaim when it was first staged 15 years ago.
But after seeing the opera I have to admit I was just as captivated and excited by this production as I was as a young opera goer all those years ago
The story of Smetana’s opera The Bartered Bride is rather like a Barbara Cartland novel. Merenka is a country girl who is in love with Jenik, but her father wants her to marry the son of the wealthiest man in town to whom he owes money. If she marries him then all her father’s debts will be settled.
In the end youth and cunning outsmart age and power and the constraints of rural life are thrown off when a circus comes to town and then with a few comedic distractions along the way everyone sorts everyone else out and they all live happily ever after.
Smetana’s music for The Bartered Bride abounds with freshness and vitality its energy generated by bold contrasts of mood and atmosphere, the exuberance of its folk like rhythms and the catchiness of its tunes.
Daniel Slater’s production has transposed beautifully into the Eastern Block of the 70’s without losing any of the true romantic appeal and certainly non of the comedy, pace or action.
Designer Robert Innes Hopkin’s set is ingenious, bold and bright and makes a strong statement down to the last hammer and sickle on the bunting that decorates the set. I especially liked the way he presented the circus truck for the breathtaking Dance of the Comedians.
Opera North have assembled a very vocally powerful and strong cast for this production. Kate Valentine’s Marenka is feisty, passionate and powerful alongside Brenden Gunnell’s equally passionate and hero like Jenik. The sparks really fly between this couple creating the illusion of a fiery passion both in the libretto and arias.
James Creswell’s, Kecal the mayor is corrupt and pompous while Nicholas Watt’s characterisation of Vasek is perfection. Both are totally believable giving depth and colour to their roles throughout their performances.
The Bartered Bride requires stamina and multi-tasking from its ensemble and once again the Chorus of Opera North have triumphed showing how versatile they are in every aspect of the production and its not an easy task to sing and dance a Mazurka!
Choreographers Vanessa Gray and Tim Claydon have excelled with their high energy Dance of the Comedians. It moves and does it move, quickly and seamlessly literally leaving the audience aghast with jugglers, acrobats and clowns never pausing for breath.
The opera’s jewel in its crown is its orchestra under the baton of Anthony Kraus. From the overture to the final curtain they are in control of the atmosphere and their playing borders on brilliance.
The Bartered Bride is part of Opera North’s touring season and will be playing at Salford Quays, Nottingham and Newcastle and many more venues. Check their website www.operanorth.co.uk for tour dates.