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Czech Mating

Sadler's Wells
12/10/1998 -  
Bedrich Smetana The Bartered Bride
Soile Isokoski (Marenka), Jorma Silvasti (Jenik), Franz Hawlata (Kecal), Gwynne Howell (Krusina), Heather Begg (Ludmilla), Ian Bostridge (Vasek), Robert Tear (Ringmaster), Roberto Salvatori (Indian), Colette Delahunt (Esmeralda), Anne Howells (Hata), Jeremy White (Micha)
Royal Opera Chorus, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Bernard Haitink (conductor), Francesca Zambello (director)

The Royal Opera's production of The Bartered Bride seems to be aimed, like last year's execrable Merry Widow, at the holiday market. A pleasant romantic comic opera with dances that go on for far too long, it's certainly lightweight fare for the Royal Opera. Fortunately, this production has more in common with Paul Bunyan, last year's surprise success. Francesca Zambello's elegantly minimal production leaves room for the simple humour and emotions. Bernard Haitink and the Royal Opera orchestra deliver the music in lapidary detail, playing energetically but without a trace of oompah or stomp.

The work itself isn't nearly as interesting as Paul Bunyan, but in its final version it's a well made music drama with semi-ethnic set-piece interludes. There's little suspense, but a lot of amusing or sentimental numbers. Because of a contract her father Krusina has signed  Marenka is bound to marry "the son of Tobias Micha", and the marriage-broker Kecal is trying to get the contract signed between her and gormless Vasek. But she's in love with Janik. Early in the opera, however, we hear that Micha has a missing son called Janik. The action consists of Kacel's efforts to persuade Janik to give up Marenka by paying him, and Marenka's trick to shake off Vasek by defaming herself. Janek takes the money on the condition that Marenka marries only "the son of Tobias Micha", and after she's sulked for a bit because he's given her up for money, his father recognizes him and the lovers marry. Vasek joins the circus, wears a bear suit and marries Esmeralda the high-wire artiste instead. Kacel is chased out of town.

The total effect is similar to non-subversive Gilbert and Sullivan, but Zambello characteristically avoided any suspicion of camp or satire. The set consists of stripped pine walls and floor, set up with a sort of house raising during the initial communitarian chorus. There are a few naïve props, such as a cutout river and some cabbage, and some basic furniture, tables and chairs. The costumes are yellow and green "traditional" Bohemian (close enough for operetta). The romance plot is played straight, and focusses on the sentimental moments -- Janik's lament for the loss of his mother, whose love Marenka replaces, Marenka's lament for Janik's apparent mercenary betrayal -- and the clever, Sullivanesque ensembles. The dances and choruses, and the circus, are done as spectacles, with no pretensions to relevance.

The cast is outstanding, which makes it worthwhile letting them sing the music in an uncomplicated narrative frame. Soile Isokoski is a chunky, expressive Marenka, remniscent in personal style of Imelda Staunton, remniscent in personal style of Imelda Staunton, tough but confused. It was possible to believe that she does not take the "trust me, I can explain" line from common sense rather than petulance. Jorma Silvasti is a shiny blond Janik with a lustrous voice, just right for this sort of music. Franz Hawlata as Kacel was luxury casting. He has a great dark brown tone and looks much older than he is in character as a stereotype grasping comic-opera villain. Ian Bostridge got the gaucheness of the music (with built-in stammers) as Vasek, but didn't really make him ridiculous dramatically. This was even more luxurious casting. Gwynne Howell and Heather Begg were sympathetic as Krusina and Ludmilla.

The chorus, representing the community into which the married lovers will be reabsorbed, was picture-book organized, and sang splendidly as usual. The children were incredibly small and very jolly, not at all sickly.

H.E. Elsom



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