Catch her if you can... this Bartered Bride has effectively flown before the curtain has risen. Sir Charles Mackerras and the Royal Opera Orchestra give chase with terrific aplomb. An exhilarating flourish from the strings and already you can't quite believe the tempo. Prestissimo doesn't quite do it justice. But it's not just fast, it's articulate, it dances, it sings. All Bohemian village life is here and amidst the buzzing strings and explosive accents. The strenuous gossip of village life keeps the chattering woodwind classes very busy indeed.
Nothing about this adequate revival of an inadequate production quite lives up to the promise of that overture, except the invaluable contribution of the man who drives it. Thank heavens for him. Mackerras knows a thing or two about Czech music and what he knows brings constant pleasure here. The character of the performance is determined in the pit and not by anything Francesca Zambello puts on stage. Ambling clarinets set the pace and tone of everyday life, sometimes isolated in lonely soliloquy, bassoons chortle at the cunning and folly of the schemers, the strings dream on, soaring wishfully to the idea of happiness ever after. Smetana's lovely score is in good hands here. Mackerras knows where to find spontaneity: in the style.
He and his cast have a brand new English translation to work with. A good idea in principle – the comedy is best served in our own vernacular and Kit Hesketh Harvey makes hay where he can. Kecal, the marriage broker, describes the unfortunate Vasek as "kind and gentle/ three parts mental". He also offers what might be regarded as a keynote for the whole piece: "No girl's quite as fair as one who's born an heiress." Smart. The problem is, though, that The Bartered Bride is so much more than a series of guffaws and playing on that aspect of the piece is bound to undermine its darker side.
Nikolaus Lehnhoff found it in his Glyndebourne production of a couple of years back but Zambello is content to make it as blameless as a sunflower. It's all a bit of a barn-dance. There's a barn (designer Alison Chitty), a lot of livid yellow and green, men with rakes, men behaving badly, badly; a harvest festival played out in feeble dance routines (Denni Sayers); and circus performers. Ah, the circus performers. You know you're in trouble when an audience's greatest enthusiasm is for the side-show.
The principals work hard. Zambello does no favours for the hapless Vasek (Timothy Robinson), completely muffing his entrance. Smetana and his librettist build up to it over the course of the whole first act. It's a big moment. But Zambello's stage isn't even cleared of other bodies before we half-discover him in the half-light. Robinson gives his all to the heavy burden of halting phrases. Better directed he could channel his physical energy to more amusing effect and perhaps even touch us as well. As Marenka, Susan Gritton does so in her big aria. The intensity of it is all we might expect of this lovely singer. But the heartless way in which she is manipulated by one and all is never really felt amidst all the overworked jollity of the evening. Paul Charles Clarke's Jenik needs to convey more ambiguity; you need to believe that he could be bought to make the piece work. Vocally, his topmost register still sounds like a slightly separate event but the timbre contrasts well with Jeremy White's Kecal, even if he doesn't have the ballast at the bottom to make landing on the word "base" quite as rude as it might be.
In sum, to quote another of Kecal's lines: "Well it all sounds very pleasant, but true love is evanescent." Rather like this show.
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