Opera: No regrets for the bride

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The Independent Culture
IT'S NOT been seen for years, and suddenly everyone's doing it - if not now, then soon. The Royal Opera and Glyndebourne are both planning "Bride" productions, but Opera North is first up, and, however starry some of the singers in the south may be, Daniel Slater's new production will be hard to beat.

The setting is still rural Bohemia, but the year is 1972, and the day is Liberation Day, an occasion for Party-organised festivities. As the curtain rises, the local choir, a motley crew, is being rehearsed by their beanpole choirmaster.

Kecal, the marriage broker, has been promoted to the role of village mayor. He is a small-time wheeler-dealer, his pockets stuffed with dollars. It is a show-stealing role, and Clive Bayley, a mainstay of many Opera North productions, and in excellent voice, makes the most of it. He has a rival in Iain Paton, whose shy, stammering Vasek is touching and funny, but not exaggerated or vulgar.

As Marenka, the girl at the heart of all the plotting, Alwyn Mellor seems more confident and at home in the role than she was as Tatyana earlier this year. She has great vocal resources and plenty of commitment, but her acting is still limited, and she does not yet have the skill of projecting her voice into the auditorium when singing softly. Still, she provides a touching emotional centre to the story. The parents' sextet, followed by her sad, reflective aria in the final act, are the intimate heart of the drama, and were both well done. Neill Archer as Jenik also sang strongly, but seemed so preoccupied with his own misfortunes that it was hard to sense the glamour which Marenka must have found in him.

But, like Die Meistersinger, this is the story of young lovers in the context of a small, close-knit community which is represented by the busy, lively chorus. Opera North's chorus was in fine voice, especially the men, who revelled in their beer celebrations.

Director and designer Robert Innes Hopkins resisted presenting Communist Czechoslovakia as a society in uniform. On the contrary, well characterised costumes and detailed crowd choreography were used to show how political orthodoxy was little more than a veneer imposed on a society that persisted in going its usual ways. Old men played chess and a man in a string vest got drunk. When the circus arrived, with its vibrant colours and anarchic performers, the irrepressible manager introduced it with subversive political jokes, for which the party hacks later took their revenge.

And what a circus it is! Witty, clever and brilliantly acrobatic, you only wish that it lasted longer than the brilliant skocna. Oliver von Dohnanyi conducted with zest and assurance. It's a mystery why such a warm-hearted, good-humoured and exhilarating piece is not a more regular part of the repertoire.

`The Bartered Bride' is at the Grand Theatre, Leeds until 13 October. Then on tour to Manchester, Nottingham and Newcastle until 7 November