It's a pity that even judicious tinkering couldn't give the young couple, Jenik and Betuska, more time alone; when they are able to talk about love in the second act, Dvorak supplies a linked pair of duets that are pure lyrical delight. In fact, throughout the opera, Dvorak's response to situation and character is entirely convincing; the melody is abundant and infectious, and some carefully placed reminiscences weld these disparate elements into a credible whole. All the musical ingredients are there for a good evening out, as a delighted audience clearly recognised. A more carefully organised libretto, which, incidentally, Dvorak got in his next comedy, The Jacobin, might have produced a masterpiece.
Cleverly circumnavigating the failings of the text, the Guildhall's reading of the opera was an almost complete success. The company's strong sense of a communal endeavour in which everyone believed gave enormous impetus to ensemble scenes. Robert Chevara's apposite production and Es Devlin's starkly effective sets kept the nasty undertow of droit de seigneur and parental abuse in sight, while neither prevented the humour from flowing generously in the comic scenes.
Even without such commendably perceptive direction, the musical performance would have carried the evening. So often, student choruses, especially when contributing to a comic opera, can seem under-involved or simply embarrassingly joky. The Guildhall's performers flung themselves into the action with abandon tempered by a thorough understanding of the drama. All the solo roles were taken with distinction: David Quah's Jean, Anne Bourne's Berta and Martin Fischer's Vaclav were splendid comic cameos, while Liubov Chuchrova and Christoph Wittmann were both delightful and moving as the young lovers. The "grown-up" parts, the Princess (Magdalena Branland), Veruna (Charlotte de Groot) and the "cunning peasant" Martin (Panito Iconomou), wisely looked beyond the simple comedy in their roles and Konrad Jarnot's fine-toned Prince managed to be both stately and venal.
Clive Timms's handling of the score was alert and idiomatic. If his players seemed to be enjoying themselves a little too much to provide effective balance at all times, the failing was more one of enthusiasm for the richness of the orchestration than wilful upstaging; far more important was their pervasive use of ensemble. Rising above the flaws in the work, this performance proved The Cunning Peasant to be a viable and exciting whole; an inestimable service not just for Dvorak's operatic fortunes, but for an audience looking to expand their enjoyment of 19th- century opera. There are two more performances. Don't miss it!
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