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LOVE AMID POLITICS AND CIRCUS

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THE BARTERED BRIDE
An opera in three acts by Bedřich Smetana
Libretto by Karel Sabina
An Opera North production
restaged by The NBR New Zealand Opera
Conductor: OLIVER VON DOHNÁNYI
Director: DANIEL SLATER
NBR | New Zealand Opera

at St James Theatre, Wellington
From 13 Oct 2012 to 20 Oct 2012

Reviewed by Sharon Talbot, 15 Oct 2012


Boy meets girl, and they fall in love. However, her parents want her to marry a rich man's son. All are in despair. But wait! The boy turns out to be the rich man's long-lost heir, so it all ends happily after all. Heard this story before somewhere?!

Indeed you have, but perhaps not set in 1972 Czechoslovakia just after the failed 'Prague Spring' revolt. NBR New Zealand Opera's production of The Bartered Bride proves that a standard rom-com plot plus nationalistic music need not make a run-of-the-mill show. 

Czech composer Smetana's 'folk opera' has been a favourite of Czech and Slovak people since it was written in the 1860s to promote their liberation from the failing Austro-Hungarian Empire. By updating the oppressive regime to Soviet Russia, British director Daniel Slater brings a refreshingly sharp edge to what could otherwise be a somewhat sickly sweet brew.  

First created in 1998 for Britain's Opera North, it is clear from the opening chorus scene why this inspired production has been acclaimed and regularly recreated. Instead of a quaint village festival, we have a jingoistic Stalinist celebration watched over by Party officials. The bride Mařenka is no sweet village girl in lace headdress and pert corset. Instead she's a feisty, denim-clad teenager who hits as hard as she falls in love. When the circus comes to town, it's a hotbed of anti-Soviet liberationists. 

Communist Czechoslovakia is not the most glamorous of settings, so the costumes are appropriately dowdy. (I do hope that the female chorus singers get something more flattering to wear in next year's NZO productions – they've had a run of rags!) The only taste of traditional 'folk' costume we get is provided by exhibition dancers at the festival.

However, detailed directing and clever grading of costuming for the different ranks of female village society adds an entertainment of its own. The ordinary peasants, including the debt-ridden mother-of-the-bride Ludmila, wear old-fashioned skirts, shawls and sensible shoes. The mayoress has an eye-catching orange frock, and some seen-better-times ladies manage flowery hats and worn tweed suits. Our heroine stands out in her trendy jeans, along with a few younger men in flares and hideous 70s hair. The rich man's wife (and wicked stepmother) Hâta, in heels and pearls, is the only one with pretensions to elegance.

Colour and exuberance are provided by the much-promoted circus performers, with punk hair and clashing colours to suit their antics. The villagers do have one standout piece in their wardrobe – bright blue blazers for their festival choir performance. Presumably these show their adherence to the Party, but it also gives them an air of bussed-in attendees at a Bucklands-style holiday camp – the “you vill have fun” effect!

Clear delineation of chorus and circus performers' characters and relationships is proof of excellent directing design by Slater, as well as sensitive realisation by Kiwi assistant director Jacqueline Coats. The thoughtful choreography by associate director Tim Claydon enhances the main action but never distracts from it, as is right.

The deceptively simple set is a rustic podium within a wooden fence, plus strings of flags and light bulbs for festive effects. Basic wooden tables and chairs are the only extras needed for this ideal touring set, which serves for both village square and local inn. When it is surrounded by a cyclorama lit with blue sky and fluffy clouds, we are instantly transported to a backwater country village without distracting detail.

The lead characters are equally well realised and (mostly) excellently cast.

The bride Mařenka is sung by Napier-born soprano Anna Leese, who is one of our fastest-rising young opera stars. She's ideal for the feisty '70s version of Mařenka, playing her with a verve and teenage fury that gives personality to an otherwise fairly standard heroine. While her music is not generally memorable, Leese makes the most of it, especially her Act III lament aria that suits her gloriously rich lyric voice.

Her boyfriend Jeník is played by British tenor Peter Wedd. Physically he is a match for Leese and makes an ardent lover. His singing overall is musical, although a sometimes covered tone in his arias is not as appealing as his recitative (sung speech) passages. His performance of the recits in English is a revelation – beautifully legato, and we can understand every word!

Kecal is the conniving marriage broker who doubles as village mayor in this production. Kiwi favourite Conal Coad has made pompous comic roles with patter songs like this his specialty. He has the right stage presence and comic timing. Conal manages his very many English words better than most, although some of his low notes were lacking tone in this performance.   

Vašek is the shy younger son of the rich man to whom Mařenka is betrothed by Kecal's contract. With its stuttering arias and foolish behaviour, this role could be overplayed as a clown. Instead, Taupo-born tenor Andrew Glover immediately grabs the audience's sympathy from his first entrance with his yearning naivety, appealingly gawky presence and sweet singing. Glover's other life as a professional actor and trained mime shows in his superb physical comedy – merely a quiver of his knee has the audience collapsing with laughter. He drew more genuine laughs than anyone else and the biggest cheer during the bows. 

Of the smaller roles, Ludmila, the mother of the bride, is beautifully played by one of NZ's premier sopranos, Patricia Wright. Ludmila's torn, ineffectual sympathy for her daughter and divided loyalty to her husband are clear in Wright's every gesture and posture. But Ludmila's few solo lines mean we hear far too little of Wright's lovely voice.

Krušina, the father of the bride, is Australian baritone John Antoniou. His thin frame, cringing sycophancy and all-round acting ability convinces us he is poor enough to sell his daughter. However, his voice is undistinguished, so his casting is a little puzzling given that there are several Kiwi baritones who could do the role very well.

Hâta is the contractual groom's mother and eventual groom's stepmother, and the reason Jeník ran away from home. She is brought to us by versatile New Zealand mezzo Helen Medlyn, who does a great line in wicked stepmothers and witches. While her voice does not always project fully, her physical presence most definitely does. From her first svelte appearance looking down her nose at the villagers, we instantly understand why Vašek is constantly worrying about doing anything his mother wouldn't like!

Micha, the rich father from the city, is performed by Kiwi Richard Green. His deep bass suits the role, although his tuning is sometimes uncertain. His tall frame makes him convincing as Glover's father, and his arrogant posture clearly proclaims his superior status.

Esmeralda, the circus ballet dancer, is stunningly performed by Australian soprano Taryn Fiebig. When we saw her en pointe, we thought she must be a dancer double and wondered how the swop would be handled. But then the same woman sang brilliantly and we were overwhelmed with admiration. Please let us hear more of her sparkling voice!

The circus Ringmaster is played by NZ theatre stalwart Jeff Kingsford-Brown, who is currently artistic director of Centrepoint Theatre in Palmerston North. This is his opera debut, as musicals have been his forte until now, and most accomplished he is. As with Glover, Kingsford-Brown's acting credentials show clearly in his charismatic and energetic performance. His speaking and singing voice has the cut and proclamatory tone required for this role. The only time the English translation really adds value is in his Ringmaster's “roll-up” speech. Then we clearly hear a series of ironic, rebel-rousing jokes about puppet governments, Brezhnev's dainty footwork and Stalin's delicate wit.

The seven (or eight!) circus performers live up to their publicity, and their turns are also nicely balanced between obvious skill and convincingly wobbly provincialism. Highlights are the handstand on five haphazardly stacked chairs and the juggler balancing on a plank over a rolling barrel.

The Chapman Tripp Chorus (Wellington) acts and sings superbly. They are fortunate that their vigorous polka and furient (another dance style) choruses comprise much of the best music in the opera (and are often performed as separate concert pieces). Each chorus member has their own character and family, which makes their scenes some of the best in this production. The five (unnamed) children add energy, and the two with lines are clearly heard. 

Several non-singing cameos are so good that they must be acknowledged. Only Bianca Andrew could make a mechanic's dungarees glamorous! Stuart Coats makes a great drunk, Kate Lineham gives us a wonderfully fussy Party devotee, and Kieran Raynor is chillingly precise as the watcher from Moscow (one of Slater's most inspired innovations). It is rather curious that none of the company's resident or emerging artists sing solos in this production. 

The Vector Wellington Orchestra starts off the performance in fine style with the effervescent overture, and supports the singers vigorously throughout. Both they and the singers are lucky to have a conductor with this music bred into his bones – Oliver von Dohnányi is a native-born Slovak who has conducted this opera in the Prague National Theatre, which Smetana helped found. 

My biggest criticism of this production has to be the English text. It's a given that the original text is fairly uninspiring to start with, and it sounds lame in English. The comedy is meant to be clearer to us in English, but the best gags are visual anyway, and the wordiness of the settings and the difficulties in enunciating English diphthongs and triphthongs where they are not written in negate much of this benefit – we had to resort to the surtitles often. NZO's argument is that nationalist opera is meant to be sung in the vernacular, which is why it was one of the first operas in Czech. And this is precisely the point – it was written to be sung in Czech and just sounds better with those sonorities!

That aside, this production is clever programming by NZO. As a light comic opera, The Bartered Bride is a complete contrast to the dark glamour and tragedy of the company's other production this year, Verdi's Rigoletto, and so will appeal to a different audience.

If you like musicals or Gilbert and Sullivan's light operas, and/or you know a young person who might, bring them along to this opera – it has all the fun of the circus and a happy love story, with a little political history thrown in for good measure. All in all, it's a jolly good show.
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See also reviews by:
 John Button (The Dominion Post);
 Lindis Taylor (Middle C);
 Tarryne Webb
 William Dart (New Zealand Herald);
 Sharu Delilkan (Theatre Scenes - Auckland Theatre Blog);