Opera: Love among the post-war ruins

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The Independent Culture
ACT TWO of Smetana's The Bartered Bride - and a few of the local lads are rowdily contemplating the meaning of life. Beer, they conclude, makes the world go round. No, says Jenik, it's love. But his voice is drowned out by the arrival of Kecal, the marriage-broker. Money, he insists, makes the world go round. A case full of catalogues and contracts says it does. Girls for sale, deals in progress, Jenik's true love Marenka among them. Her parents need the money rather more than they need her love, it seems. There follows a furiant, the most bracing of all Czech national dances, but Nikolaus Lehnhoff, the director of Glyndebourne's first-ever staging, abandons the country dancing and resigns himself and us to the spectacle of men behaving badly. There's nothing about this everyday tale of country folk that another beer, a good shag, and money up front won't improve.

So whatever happened to Smetana's cosy old charmer? Well, you could say that his librettist Karel Sabina started the rot when he sold his nationalistic soul to the Austrians for a bag of gold (he was unmasked as an Austrian spy). Money, you see, does make the world go round. Love is for dreamers. And that's the central dichotomy in Lehnhoff's spanking new production. He drops us into the Czech hinterland at some point after its establishment as a People's Republic. Post-1948. Life is relentlessly grey, a daily grind, frustration simmering just beneath the surface. The stench of capitalism has begun filtering through. But today is a holiday, the day of the local fair and pageant. A glimmer of colour. The designer Tobias Hoheisel has imagined one of those dowdy community halls, all brown walls, bare tables and chairs, but decked out with a green garland or two and a few flowers in the national colours. Funny how the hall stage is a dead ringer for the old Glyndebourne proscenium.

And on that stage, dreams are made - albeit fleetingly. When Jenik and Marenka sing of their love, someone flies in (right on cue) a crudely painted back-drop of clouds against a bluer than blue sky. The pageant itself brings a glimpse of picture-book Bohemia - a stiffly danced polka in pristine, brightly coloured national costumes. So we see Marenka transformed from troubled girl next door to peachy-clean dream-bride. We see spectators infected by the dance spontaneously taking their partners in the audience. Reality and make-believe, the old and new worlds in parallel. It's a staggeringly simple idea, but it works. And where the two worlds collide, Lehnhoff really shows his theatrical nous. In one magical moment, Vasek (Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke), the opera's much-put-upon figure of fun, is transfixed as the curtains on the tiny stage part to reveal a frozen image of his dream-girl, the trapeze artist Esmeralda, caught in flight against a midnight- blue sky, with a golden orb floating to one side of her like some mystical planet.

But no sooner has the image been fixed on the retina than the backcloth drops away and in bursts the circus troupe as they really are - a rude, rum bunch from Finchley (yes, this is a travelling English circus) who not only hail from another culture and speak in another language, but also belong to another period, it would seem. A rehearsal piano rather than the customary orchestra at this point only adds to the disorientation.

Like all the best Glyndebourne evenings, this one has a compelling sense of family, of ensemble. Solveig Kringelborn's voice is filling out nicely and she sings Marenka with great feeling and charm, if not always the long, seamless legatos that make the big notes seem more integral. Kim Begley (Jenik) goes from strength to strength with his new-found heroic Fach, and Jonathan Veira (Kecal) gives us everything we might have got from Kurt Rydl (who withdrew from the production) except the blackness and reach of those seemingly bottomless notes. The luxury casting of the parents was like a re-run of all our yesterdays with Helga Dernesch (Ludmila), Norman Bailey (Krusina), Anne Howells (Hata), and Richard Van Allan (Micha) bringing more than just wrinkles to the older generation.

Jiri Kout conducted with a Czech's innate sense of itchy feet from the overture onwards. The London Philharmonic (dashing woodwind in particularly fine fettle) articulated that with determination. Plenty of grit in the mix. Rather like the production. Bags of charm, but a bitter-sweet aftertaste, too.

Edward Seckerson

To 29 Aug (01273 813813)