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)

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