Opera: A right old song and dance

Even a feisty, all-dancing production of Smetana's The Bartered Bride can't put a spring into the steps of the Royal Opera company.
LIFE MAY be one big barn dance, but clearly it's going to take more than a polka or two to put the smile back into the Royal Opera. Francesca Zambello's new production of Smetana's perennially charming The Bartered Bride is not the seasonal tonic we all anticipated. You can put on a happy face, but you cannot disguise a lazy disposition. They're raising a barn down in deepest Bohemia. Too bad they couldn't raise a laugh or two.

We've seen Alison Chitty's well scrubbed pine before. We've seen her costumes, too, on souvenir dolls the world over. At first glance of the opening tableau - everyday countryfolk awakening to greet yet another corn-coloured dawn - you might imagine you've mistakenly dropped in on the National Theatre's Oklahoma! If only. A closer look at the costumes puts you right. But this is Toy Story Bohemia, all yellow and green (is it ever?) and cut-out flora and fauna atop picket-fence pickets. It's as pretty as a picture, for the second or two it takes your eyes to adjust to the bright light and squeaky-clean colours, but very soon you're thinking "not again". Isn't it something of a betrayal, even patronising, to go on treating Smetana's beautiful and really rather wistful piece as though it were theatre for the under-fives?

Then again, such visual irritations (and this much yellow and green can have you reaching for the antihistamines) are only exacerbated by the absence of a tangible energy, rigour, and wit in the staging. Can this really be the work of Francesca Zambello, whose sharp thinking and instinctive stagecraft so lately enthralled us in pieces as disparate as Britten's Paul Bunyan and Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov for the Royal Opera and ENO? Her presence is fleetingly evident in the blocking of that opening tableau, freeze-dried for our delectation. And the sense in which village life is everyone's business but anyone's own is something she sets up most promisingly in the first scene - Jenik and Marenka have plainly grown used to conducting their affairs in the full glare of nosy neighbours - but thereafter abandons.

Meanwhile, if we could see them dance the polka, maybe that would chase all our troubles away. Again, wishful thinking. Zambello's choreographer, Denni Sayers, would seem to have gone AWOL from this production. It's that which finally sinks it. The dance is important, the dance is integral here. It's the essence of Bohemian bonhomie.But tell that to the motley Royal Opera Chorus. It's not fancy footwork, but a little imagination that makes dancers out of even the club-footed. The Susan Stromans of this world tell stories, make pictures, find character in every move. Folk dancing is silly, but not this silly. My heart sank when I saw the rakes (they rode them like hobbyhorses). The rest was half-hearted, thigh- slapping, foot-stomping disarray. Riverdance after the drought.

But take heart. Bernard Haitink is still with us, and you know, from the time he takes over that reflective moment just prior to the overture's effervescent coda, just how much he loves this piece. All right, so he's less of a cheerleader than some, so he doesn't exactly kick up his heels in the dance numbers. But the charm, the affection, the sincerity - to use that unfashionable word - is winning. And he has a cast who share his sentiments. As Jenik and Marenka, we've two vocally captivating Scandinavians. Jorma Silvasti's lusty tenor has beefy peasant stock written all over it, more than a match for Soile Isokoski's feistily independent Marenka. Hers is a deceptive voice, yielding more colour than its apparent narrowness might suggest. There's heart and musicianship behind it. Franz Hawlata has his work cut out as Kecal, the unscrupulous marriage-broker (shifty descents to basso profundo), and Ian Bostridge's sweet-voiced Vasek is blissfully at odds with his sales pitch: a velvet-clad stork of a lad with as many buttons and bows as he lacks words. A moral for the production team?