Charles Mackerras is conducting a production of Bedrich Smetana's opera The Bartered Bride this month, created in 1998 by the indefatigable Francesca Zambello, at the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden, through January 20. The reviews have been good this time around, beginning with Warwick Thompson (Sprightly 'Bartered Bride' Looks at High Price of Happiness, January 9) for Bloomberg News:
In Smetana's lively Czech comedy "The Bartered Bride," a young villager pretends to sell his fiancee for 10,000 crowns. She turns out to be a "bouncing Czech," however, and in the end the young man ends up with both the girl and the gold. The opera, in repertory at London's Royal Opera House through Jan. 20, examines the price we put on happiness and the value of human relationships. The other villagers don't mind that Jenik is bartering his bride -- until they learn of the high price. Their outraged reaction provides a great comic moment, one which neatly skewers their hypocrisy. There are many other well-observed moments in this beautifully clear production. Director Francesca Zambello and designer Alison Chitty set the story in and around a large village barn, sometime in the early 20th century. The costumes, mostly drab simple cottons, give the sense that poverty is only a short step away. Ten thousand crowns means security, safety and freedom.Edward Seckerson was less than enthusiastic about the staging in his review (The Bartered Bride, Royal Opera House, London, January 11) for The Independent but lauds the musical performances, beginning with the conductor:
With Sir Charles Mackerras at the helm, Smetana's Bartered Bride not only has a spring in her step, she's several inches off the ground for much of the duration. Mackerras isn't just well-versed in the rhythms, the accents, the attitude of Czech music, it's part of his musical DNA. How rare it is to hear Smetana's racy violin figurations so deftly, so precisely placed, like whispered rumours, in the opening pages of the overture; how rare to feel the explosive vitality bubbling under, primed and ready; how refreshing to feel an orchestra and an audience enjoying itself because they feel confidant that they are in safe hands. If ever an overture raised one's expectations of the opera to come, this is it, right down to the wistful Dvorak-like reflection just before the breathless pay-off.On this post, Jens already quoted from another review by Richard Fairman (The Bartered Bride, Royal Opera House, London, January 10) for the Financial Times. He also gives high praise to Mackerras and the singers but does not like the staging:
On the face of it Francesca Zambello's production (sung here in English) is true to the work. It is set in the Bohemian countryside, in period and in costume, and has a good sense of humour. And yet there is a brash showbiz slickness about it that soon starts to set one's teeth on edge. Do the chorus always have to be kitted out in matching poster-paint colours? Do the local harvest festivals really involve men dressed as haystacks with huge carrots as noses? "Now welcome to the West End stage our visitors all the way from Bohemia!", the production seems to shout. "You'll love them - they're really quaint."The last review I read was by Rupert Christiansen (Long road to the fun and games, January 11) for The Telegraph:
"An evening of merriment and mayhem is guaranteed... a splendid first opera experience for kids," proclaims the publicity for this revival of Smetana's comedy. Encouraged by such pledges and some relatively modest pricing, there were a lot of children in the audience, but I doubt if they left the theatre feeling that the promise had been fulfilled. The Bartered Bride scarcely approaches the merriment of Little Britain or the mayhem of Harry Potter, and the plot is thin and silly: the oafish Jenik's refusal to tell his beloved Marenka why he is conniving with the marriage broker Kecal must rank as one of the daftest no-brainers in the operatic repertory.In that vein, the Royal Opera is hosting, of all things, a Bartered Bride Sing-a-long on January 20. It is aimed at students and costs £10. Someone in London needs to go to this and let us know just how many people, let alone kids, will be able to sing along with The Bartered Bride, even if it is being sung in English.
Yes, there are some great tunes, some jolly dance sequences and fun and games in the last act when the circus comes to town. But the pace is pretty slow - with two intervals, the show lasts three hours and a quarter and the long stretches of recitative are deadly dull. Far better to take older kids to Billy Budd, I would have thought.