Half full Bartered Bride

14 Nov

There is something quite special about the opening of the Bartered Bride overture – like all great overtures it should provide an instant shot of excitement while, at the same time, making you feel secure that there’s a really enjoyable evening coming up.  Those first chords, delivered as soon as the lights went down at Opera North’s performance of the piece at Newcastle’s Theatre Royal on 13th November did just that.

The problem with the opera, however, is that, all too often, that promise doesn’t get fulfilled.  It’s quite a difficult piece for us these days.  It’s very easy for us to become aware of the weaknesses in the plot (not helped here by the dialogue revealing early in Act I that Micha’s first son was called Jenik) and of the fact that Smetana’s music goes on a bit – all those duets and repetitions.  A good performance needs to capture the gentle comedy of character, the emotion of Marenka and the sheer exhileration of the circus and the dances.  Performances can plod a bit, particularly in the first two acts and lose the excitement of the dances.

This performance didn’t avoid this problem.  It was pleasant enough, but you couldn’t avoid the feeling of people working just a bit too hard in the wrong direction and it wasn’t until third act that I lost the slightly apologetic feelling that sometimes bedevils this sort of 19th century romantic comedy.

Partly, it’s the production.  Daniel Slater’s production is now sixteen years old and it’s set firmly in communist Czecheslovakia and it succeeds quite nicely in avoiding a cliched, folksy feeling and in creating some believable characters.  What it seems to miss is a larger than life element that I think you probably need for characters like Kecal and Vasek.  What it definitely misses is anything which really matches the sheer excitement of the music in the dances: turning the Furiant into a drunken brawl didn’t really work for me and the circus needs to be slicker and simply have more excitement.  It all looked slightly tired and revival-ish.

Similarly Anthony Kraus’s conducting struck me as perfectly sound but without the sort of stylish understanding that Mackerras or some others bring.  It felt a bit slow and plodding and I was aware of how long some of the duets in the first two acts are.  I was aware of what a tricky score this is to get right.  The orchestra was in decent enough form but not at the level that Farnes gets from them.

There was nothing particularly wrong with the cast.  Kate Valentine struck me as making a success of Marenka – it’s the right sort of lyric soprano for this and I’d love to hear her in similar roles, Ellen Orford, the Governess and, in due course, some of the Strauss ones.  She acted it nicely and was really sympathetic and moving in the third act – her aria there was great.  Brandon Gunnell seems to have the right sort of voice for Jenik, with the right power and he had the right sort of charm and sense of being in control that the role needs.  James Creswell was a really excellent Kecal but I felt that a different interpretation from his director would have allowed him to develop a bigger personality.  His singing was great and I think he has a great future in this sort of role.  I also liked Nicholas Watts as Vasek – a role that you don’t want too exaggerated and I thought he made the character convincing and sympathetic.

The parents were strongly cast – particularly Peter Savidge as Krusina and Fiona Kimm as Hata.  The chorus seemed to enjoy itself and sang well enough.

So not a bad evening but you didn’t quite leave with the sense of exhileration that ideally you should after this opera.  Maybe it didn’t help that the theatre was less than half full – there’s a chill that tends to descend over this theatre when it’s like that, which can’t help the performers.  Overall, it was a decent enough, glass half-full performance, a bit like the audience.

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