The Bartered Bride, Royal Opera House, London


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)

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

    Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

    His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
    'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

    Open letter to David Cameron

    Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
    Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

    You don't say!

    Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
    Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

    So what is Mubi?

    Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
    The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

    The hardest job in theatre?

    How to follow Kevin Spacey
    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders