The Bartered Bride, Royal Opera House, London

3.00

Shut your eyes and all is perfect

With Sir Charles Mackerras at the helm, Smetana's Bartered Bride not only has a spring in her step, she's several inches off the ground for much of the duration. Mackerras isn't just well-versed in the rhythms, the accents, the attitude of Czech music, it's part of his musical DNA.

How rare it is to hear Smetana's racy violin figurations so deftly, so precisely placed, like whispered rumours, in the opening pages of the overture; how rare to feel the explosive vitality bubbling under, primed and ready; how refreshing to feel an orchestra and an audience enjoying itself because they feel confidant that they are in safe hands.

If ever an overture raised one's expectations of the opera to come, this is it, right down to the wistful Dvorak-like reflection just before the breathless pay-off.

But then the curtain rises and when it does things are very, well, yellow. Or green. Alison Chitty's brightly lit backdrop reflects a blindingly optimistic light on the scrubbed pine of her huge, barn-like set. They're erecting it at the outset. It's Ikea meets Witness all over again.

But even back in 1998 when Francesca Zambello's Bartered Bride at Sadler's Wells was new the feeling was that this pristine look had had its day. It's lazy, it's fake, and, worst of all, it's sanitises the spirit of the piece, which is not all bright and cheerful and blameless.

There is a feeling, too, that even after two revivals the big set pieces are still in the early stages of rehearsal. You can all but see the chorus hitting their marks. And as for the national dances (choreographer Denni Sayers), it's one thing suggesting the naffness of a local pageant and quite another subjecting a paying audience to it. No wonder the animatronic donkey in the last scene can do no more than shake its head.

What does surprise me, though, is that a director as experienced as Zambello can muff even the fundamentals of the drama such as the arrival of the unfortunate Vasek. Smetana and his librettist - to say nothing of Kit Hesketh-Harvey in his often deliciously wacky English translation - set him up so brilliantly that to have him loitering at the side of the stage minutes before his actual entrance more than takes the edge off it.

Still, Timothy Robinson - fresh from captaining The Indomitable in ENO's Billy Budd - makes the most of his thankless (and somewhat unsavoury) stuttering and goes some way towards reminding us that it is our perception of Vasek's awkwardness ("three parts mental", as Hesketh-Harvey has it) that turns him into a figure of ridicule.

Susan Gritton's Marenka, one feels, sees that too. This generous singer doesn't sing a note that isn't true and felt. With ample voice and a steely intensity at the top she is an affecting presence on any stage, but as Marenka she has the stamina and reach for a role whose demands are deceptively challenging and too often underestimated. It's quite a sing.

So, too, is Jenik, her true love, a tenor role with a hint of the heroic and the ability to spring some unexpected surprises above the stave. The young New Zealand tenor Simon O'Neill is quite a find for this part, having both the ruddy robustness and Slavic brightness. He can perhaps work on making the phrasing more ingratiating but his reach is rafter-rattling.

At the other end of the vocal spectrum is Peter Rose's splendidly unscrupulous marriage broker, Kecal, a role which really gives this seasoned performer something to get his teeth into. Hesketh-Harvey's translation helps things along with a running gag on the word "base", for which we can read "bass", as Rose plummets to indecent depths. And speaking of seasoned performers, Robert Tear pops up as the Ringmaster with a penchant for innuendo.

Gratifying, to be reminded that we can field a top-flight cast that's almost entirely home-grown. Would that the theatrical values had matched the musical.

To 20 January (020-7304 4000)

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

    Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
    A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

    A new Russian revolution

    Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
    Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
    Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

    Standing my ground

    If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
    Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

    Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

    The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
    The man who dared to go on holiday

    The man who dared to go on holiday

    New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell