Opera North‘s first outing of Smetana’s foot-tappingly tuneful and characterful comedy The Bartered Bride dressed the piece in what might be loosely termed today as “pasted on” folksiness. I retain fond memories of Steven Pimlott’s previous 1981 production with its voluminous 19th Century frocks and tall hats. This was a traditional staging of its time, expected by the growing audience of a then new opera company not yet daring to court controversy.

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The current production, directed by Daniel Slater and conducted by Oliver von Dohnányi, originally starred Alwyn Mellor as Mařenka, Niall Archer as Jenik and Clive Bayley as Kecal when it premiered at Leeds Grand Theatre in September 1998. The events precipitated by the removal of the Berlin Wall a decade earlier had irrevocably changed the face of eastern Europe. By the early 1990s the iron fist had been replaced by the Velvet Revolution in the (former) Czechoslovakia. Slater deliberately pre-dates the Gorbachev Glasnost era by setting his production in the still Communist dominated Czechoslovakia of the early 1970s – a decade of dubious fashions and even more dubious hairstyles – and only a few years after the Prague Spring had been ruthlessly crushed by Soviet tanks.

The bunting decorating Robert Innes Hopkins’ set displays the hammer and sickle; nostalgically regarded by some of today’s older folk as a reminder of times past when there seemed to be more certainties and greater security. George Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four had written “If you want an image of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever”. Slater’s lightness of touch is a reminder of Communist oppression but is tempered by the humour and warmth of Smetana’s music .

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Innes-Hopkins’ front piece shown during the Overture projects the flags and banners of the resurgent Czech nation. The gauze rises to reveal the “village square” – a raised wooden stage with festooned coloured lights and bunting, in the distance, grey pylons and a vast sweeping cyclorama of azure blue sky with fluffy cirrus clouds. A bland eastern bloc setting, which with Simon Mills‘ soft lighting and festooned coloured bulbs soon becomes festive. The local people preparing for a National Holiday in the opening chorus “Proč bychom se netěšili” (“Let’s rejoice and be merry”) in their bright red blazers and tops are depicted as a disciplined choir rehearsing with “enforced” jollity a Communist Party anthem.

James Creswell as Kecal (the marriage broker and village mayor) strutted around in his be-medalled grey suit projecting the atypical Party functionary. Kecal’s sharp-suited assistants, inseparable from their aluminium brief cases, look like air-con or double glazing salesman. Peter Savidge as Krušina and Anne Taylor as Ludmila – the parents of country girl Mařenka – are down- trodden peasants who simply cannot afford to pay their debt to Stephen Richardson’s wide boy businessman, Tobias Micha. Kate Valentine as the feisty Mařenka – in blue denim jeans (how prized those would have been in the Warsaw Pact countries in the 1970s) and Brenden Gunnell as her swarthy lover, Jenik, in an equally sought-after spivvy leather jacket both display a refreshing independence of spirit.

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The main comic turn arrives in the form of Peter Bodenham as the Circus Manager who in a lengthy and witty speech exhorts the local populace to come to the circus “There is nothing like a good circus, this IS nothing like a good circus!” Then in a striking coup de théâtre, the drab circus caravan opens out to reveal brightly dressed puppet figures in crimson plush theatre boxes. The entire stage is filled with a blaze of colour as a troupe of cart wheeling acrobats and dancers perform to the famous “Dance of the Comedians”.

Tim Claydon is the revival choreographer; his high octane routines really add a sparkle to this entertaining production. An ensemble piece such as this plays to the full strengths of the company and the Chorus of Opera North excel as always. The forty singers are moved around the stage as circus spectators, workers or villagers. They create animated watchable characters and individual voices all singing with compelling focus.

The principals are without exception excellent and impeccably well matched. Creswell’s assumption of the role of Kecal is a triumph, his smooth bass colour-changing like a chameleon. Having experienced the American singer only in “heavy” roles, his Kecal was revelatory. Kecal’s opening trios “Jak vám pravím, pane kmotře” (“As I was saying, my good fellow”) and “Mladík slušný” (“He’s a nice boy, well brought up”) in which Creswell dominates Savidge’s Krušina and Taylor’s Ludmila, are patter songs. They are delivered to the manner born by Creswell with knife-edge clarity and mocking humour that delighted the audience.

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Kate Valentine’s expressive and creamy voice showed absolutely no sign of strain when under pressure in the coloratura passages and sustained high notes in her arias “Kdybych se co takového” (“If I should ever learn”) and “Ó, jaký žal … Ten lásky sen” (“Oh what grief…… That dream of love”). Brenden Gunnell’s Jenik has a virile lyric – virtually a heldentenor quality – ideal for the lyricism and high tessitura of this role. The couple’s impassioned duets “Jako matka požehnáním … Věrné milování” (“While a mother’s love… Faithful love can’t be marred”) and “Mařenko má!” (“Mařenka mine!”) were ravishing to the ear.

Nicholas Watts appealingly conveys the essential pathos of the stammering Vašek – a sort of Czech Albert Herring. Watt’s beautifully clear and pure English-sounding high tenor is perfect for his aria “Má ma-ma Matička” (“My-my-my mother said to me”). Fiona Kimm as Háta, the aforementioned mother, creates a formidable and blowsy figure to add to her gallery of gorgon roles. Jennifer France as Esmiraldo the Circus Ballerina contributes a delightful cameo.

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Slater recognises the uneven quality of the recitatives and does not simply fall back on the spoken dialogue of Smetana’s earliest 1866 version. Instead he has created a mixture of recitative and spoken dialogue. The witty English translation of Karel Sabina’s libretto is the work of David Pountney and Leanard Hancock; Slater has himself written the dialogue, a collaborative endeavour that works very well indeed. The key to ultimate success being that everyone has been encouraged to sound like actors speaking the lines rather than singers dutifully or self-consciously delivering spoken dialogue.

Anthony Kraus conducts with a terrific sense of pace, balance and feeling for the joyful Czech dance rhythms that run through much of Smetana’s score. The Orchestra of Opera North (unsurprisingly) cover themselves in glory. The lower strings positively bristle in the extended fugato of the famous overture, which is taken at whip-crack speed. The other orchestral “lollipops” emerge as glittering showpieces, infused with local colour and that (admittedly difficult to define) spirit of “Czechness”.

This hugely entertaining revival continues in repertoire at Leeds Grand Theatre until 31st October and then tours to Newcastle Theatre Royal, Salford Lowry Theatre and Nottingham Theatre Royal.

Geoffrey Mogridge

5 stars

(Photos courtesy of the Opera North website)

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