Brilliant Bartered Bride redeems shortcomings of its Cold War setting

The Bartered Bride by Smetana (NBR New Zealand Opera)

The Vector Wellington Orchestra and the Opera Chorus; conducted by Oliver von Dohnányi; directed by Daniel Slater; associate director and choreographer: Tim Claydon; associate director: Jacqueline Coats; chorus master: Michael Vinten

Cast: Anna Leese, Peter Wedd, Conal Coad, Andrew Glover, Taryn Fiebig, John Antoniou, Patricia Wright, Richard Green, Helen Medlyn, Jeff Kingsford-Brown

St James Theatre, Wellington

Saturday 13 October, 7.30pm

New Zealand Opera continues to explore every year or so, as much as it safely can, slightly unfamiliar operas. Their record so far has been unfaltering, and this splendid outing of something a bit on the fringe has maintained the high score. An opera has been revealed that many will have heard of but few expected to see here. This production has put it into the mainstream, into the class of comic operas with Rossini and Donizetti, Strauss and Offenbach or G & S. The music has character, wit and energy, and the story is no less probable than the average comic opera – or theatrical comedy for that matter.

The history
But first, the opera’s background in New Zealand. It has not been entirely absent from the New Zealand stage; it was one of the operas produced in the second decade of the legendary New Zealand Opera Company. It was in 1964, and I did not see it as I was overseas, but I recall reading about it in the New Zealand press. That year the company was about at the height of its success: both The Bartered Bride and Rigoletto toured nationally with the then NZBC Symphony Orchestra, and nationally meant to a dozen or more towns; and there were were also a Cosi fan tutte which had been produced in Wellington at the end of 1963 (I saw that) and then travelled to Auckland, Nelson and Blenheim, and La cenerentola (Rossini) was staged in Auckland and Wellington.

And note too that the Dunedin Opera Company, which was established in 1956, a little after the New Zealand Opera Company, and is still at work, staged The Bartered Bride as its first production in 1957, revived in 1962; though that would have been a very pro/am affair.

Certainly, by today’s standards, those productions would appear pretty amateur, but at that time very few people travelled overseas and saw real international opera, and there were very ready audiences for opera all over the country. In reality, through those years, and especially the 1980s and 90s there was a lot more opera to be seen throughout New Zealand than there is now, if not as polished as it usually is today.

This splendid performance
Before I describe my misgivings about the production, I will dwell on the performance itself, much the most important aspect and which was such a delight.  The English translation is by David Pountney and Leonard Hancock, and the dialogue by Daniel Slater, the director; it was idiomatic and sometimes witty, and the surtitles were excellent though often remaining on the screen too briefly for me. I am a firm advocate of opera in the original language, and earlier I had some misgivings about it, but in the theatre I was won over right from the start, for there is not a great gulf between the rhythms of Czech and English.  Most voices projected very clearly but the surtitles were still a help.

The programme booklet was comprehensive, with scholarly articles by Nicholas Tarling and Nicholas Reid: well worth the money.

And there is no doubt about the fully international character of this latest production, hired from Opera North which premiered it in 1998; it was widely praised then, and at revivals.

The opening scene is something of a coup, with the villagers carrying chairs for a choir rehearsal under a stiff conductor who has them singing quite brilliantly to infectious Slav rhythms, in praise (ironically) of the country’s liberation. (The real chorus master was Michael Vinten). And though the chorus doesn’t sing a great deal, its contributions are always high points both through the music and their tight and energetic ensemble, in particular their coming in at the end of the Polka and during the circus scene.

Perhaps the most striking, and astonishing element is the troupe of acrobats who enliven all the dances, especially the Furiant and the circus itself with the Dance of the Comedians, where their spectacular juggling and hair-raising hurling of each other high in the air and trusting their catchers so implicitly adds a very singular element to the performance.

The lighting (Simon Mills) is so subtly executed that you are virtually unaware of it.

Roles are excellently cast, the chorus vivid and well schooled, and the orchestra plays with good ensemble, energy and colour; conductor Oliver von Dohnányi guides things spiritedly.

As usual, the cast is a mixture of New Zealand and overseas singers. The vivid Napier-born soprano Anna Leese fitted the role of Mařenka like a glove, with a strong, beautiful voice portraying intelligence and determination; her costume – an unstylish mix of bluish jerkin over pink skivvy and blue jeans  –  her demeanour, like those of almost all the cast did indeed recreate the look of the 1970s – anywhere – not merely in communist countries. (Anna gave a good interview in The New Zealand Herald: look at

Her boy-friend, Jeník, is English tenor, Peter Wedd, who has sung in Australia in two Janáček roles (and two roles in Kátya Kabanová elsewhere – looks as if he’s a Czech specialist); he wore a leather jacket and brown trousers (the designer of costumes and other aspects of the production was Opera North’s Robert Innes Hopkins). Wedd’s voice and lively performance were as arresting in his role as was Leese’s. The duets of Mařenka and Jeník are important moments of the opera and they carried them off as if they cared.

The arrival of Conal Coad on stage always seems to bring with it the feeling that, here is a truly polished and convincing production. I confess I didn’t become aware that Kecal had been transformed into the village mayor till I read it in the programme; and it didn’t make his bullying more or less acceptable. But he didn’t ham it or try to play for laughs; his performance, with brilliant patter-arias in the last scenes, simply fulfilled the role’s expectations splendidly, even in his devastating humiliation at the end.

The approved bridegroom for Mařenka appears after the second exciting acrobat-led dance – the Furiant – in Act II: the earlier invisible Vašek (New Zealander Andrew Glover) appears and explains himself in a mock stammering manner. But the scene was lustily funny in which Mařenka, pretending to be someone else, paints a terrible picture of her own self for Vašek’s enlightenment, causing him immediately to abjure her.

The interval came after Act II with preparations for the circus, one of the most spectacular scenes, with the Ring-master, played by actor Jeff Kingston-Brown who was given wittily topical (for 1972) lines touching life under communism. It also introduces what is little more than a brilliant cameo role, a circus performer, Esmeralda, sung by sparkling soubrette performer Taryn Fiebig, one of the most catchy and hilarious numbers. Vašek is paired with her and for a moment she serves to confirm Vašek in his determination not to marry Mařenka.

Mařenka’s parents had appeared in Act I in the dealings with Kecal. They are Australian John Antoniou and Patricia Wright, who is still one of the best sopranos in this country. Now, in Act III, Vašek’s parents and, it turns out, Jeník’s too, show up. They are very well delineated by New Zealanders Richard Green and Helen Medlyn and one wished they’d had bigger roles.  One feels a bit sorry for Vašek, as the unlikely match with Esmeralda doesn’t materialise.

It’s a pity that this splendid comic opera has not become a standard repertoire piece outside of the Czech Republic and Slovakia, the homeland of conductor Oliver von Dohnányi, who has been its conductor for Opera North as well as many other companies (though I don’t see Bratislava or other Slovak cities among them). He led the singers and orchestra with energy and drew strong rhythms from the orchestra in the dances and the various ensembles and choruses built on Slavonic ideas.

From Austrian bucolic to heroic communist peasant?
Daniel Slater, the director, is quoted saying he thought a shift in era would make the characters more believable, and so he moved it from its original time, mid-19th century, to 1972, a few years after the Prague Spring when under an enlightened leader, Dubček, there seemed momentary hope that the harsh hand of communism might be at least softened, only to be dashed by the arrival of Warsaw Pact troops.

It was produced only eight years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the world was still fascinated by the events of 1989/90, dramatising the stark contrasts between the old evil days and the – well, what? – the bright optimism of the 90s punctuated with the happy scenes in the former Yugoslavia?

This production is already 14 years old.

And the world has moved on, a very long way, since then.

So is it dated already? To me it felt like that. There is a tide in the affairs of men (as Brutus said) – of history and art. What happened to the Soviet empire was momentous and amazing, and to transplant an old opera into that period was adventurous. But is it still, today?

The common justification for theatrical changes of time and place is the fresh perceptions and levels of meaning, insights about the story itself made possible. What did we learn about the nature of the Czech people, of political life, or of the psychology of human beings?

Apart from the very amusing promotional rave from the Ring-master at the start of Act III with his witty allusions to communist leaders and the threatening existence of Big Brother in Moscow, very little.

I approached it with an open mind, but the feeling grew steadily that the presence of a totalitarian regime in the background offered little more than a bit of visual ugliness in the set.

The opening chorus, directed in a somewhat martial manner to be sure, did not offer any special insights into the nature of life under communism.  It’s Liberation Day rather than simply a holiday, but that seems not to change the way the people behave.  There was no modification, nor could there have been, in the story that revolves round the planned marriage as a matter of financial convenience. Micha, a well-to-do merchant, was still able to exploit a poor peasant who seems still to own his own farm (though we know that collectivisation was not nearly as sweeping in the satellite countries as it was in the Soviet Union).

There were still plenty of typical country scenes and pretty villages in Czechoslovakia in 1972 – I spent a few days there in the 60s. I was bemused at Slater’s relating how he had toured the country looking for ‘an authentic Bohemian village, [one not] prettied for tourists’. (He could have done that a lot more cheaply by looking through media photos). To have fastened on this bleak scene seems sadly perverse.

Where do the comrades live, work and shop, and go to school and drink beer? On stage we see a big grey transformer, a couple of red steel drums, beer barrels on a table and four poles that might have been watch towers or carried search-lights. Was it a border post? But the folks gathered in this odd outdoor place to have their choir rehearsal. What an eccentric community!

While these feelings about the point of the change of era remained, my enjoyment of the performance grew. It’s the music, to be sure, but much more than the overture and the three well-known dances. It’s not one of those operas with an embarrassing libretto that survives entirely through the music, for the story is fairly adroit and credible, at least in theatrical terms. The only place that always seems weak is in the last scene where Jeník fails tell Mařenka at once, in simple terms about the stunt he has pulled over the broker which will make their marriage not only secure but financially rewarding. But theatre depends on characters who don’t ask the obvious question or offer the obvious explanation at the right moment.

In conclusion, the shifting of the production to the 1970s did no great harm; it allowed a few moments of amusement but really offered no fresh insights into the opera or into the human condition. All the important elements, of singing and orchestral playing, were of undisputed international quality and another opera has, at least for us, been admitted to the ranks of top 20.

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