Opera + Classical Music Reviews

The Bartered Bride review – beg, borrow or barter for a ticket at Garsington Opera

30 June, 3, 5, 8, 10, 13, 15, 20, 23 July 2023

The spirit of the original is retained in a new setting. 

The Bartered Bride

The Bartered Bride (Photo: Julian Guidera)

Although in The Bartered Bride Smetana largely avoided the direct quotation of folksong, the music he composed was considered to be Czech in spirit, meaning that he succeeded in his aim of creating a truly Czech operatic genre. It might therefore seem strange to transfer the action to a 1950s English village, but Paul Curran’s 2019 production for Garsington Opera, now revived by Rosie Purdie, works well for several reasons. In the same way as the original created an image of how the Czech people wished to see themselves, so the first decade of the reign of Elizabeth II, whose image we see hanging in the local pub, conjures ideas for many of the perfect England.

This is also an era in which the values seen in the original largely hold. Marriage brokers were not exactly the norm in 1950s England, but there would have been parents then who told their daughter who to marry and expected automatic obedience, as there would have been families where the father took a harder line than the mother. Above all, the chosen setting works because it captures a time of great change as old and new values clash. If some women in the ’50s did not feel they could resist their parents, there were others who did and Mařenka is one of them. 

The generational divide is highlighted extremely well from the start as the local minister gets the church fair started by putting on an LP record of The Bartered Bride! Thus, the Overture to the opera introduces all of the villagers as the minister gets into the music by conducting along to it. Halfway through, some Teddy Boys try to replace it with an Elvis record but the minister resists. It is, however, Mařenka who finally ensures its removal at the end of the Overture, thus revealing her strong personality and how she stands for a new order.

The energy and dynamism cannot be faulted, as every chorus member is handed a unique character that they maintain throughout the evening. Kevin Knight’s sets ensure that when it is their turn to take centre stage the results are overwhelmingly joyous, but when their presence is to add context they do not excessively distract from the central action. Act I sees the church hall comprise a main area, with a largely cut away proscenium stage at one end, and a small kitchen, separated by a door, at the other. This enables Mařenka’s lengthy Act I scene with Jeník to take place in the latter more intimate space, while workmen tinker with spotlights in the main hall. All of the chorus members are involved in the dancing, and the Polka that ends Act I becomes a maypole routine that is as impressive for its design as its obvious exuberance. There are also some beautiful touches as an upset Mařenka leaves the dance, and everyone rushes towards her for spoiling it before realising they have unbalanced the maypole and it is on the verge of collapse.  

Paul Curran’s 2019 production for Garsington Opera… works well…”

The Bartered Bride

The Bartered Bride (Photo: Alice Pennefather)

The scene change between Act I’s church hall and Act II’s pub is also notable because, with the cast being heavily involved in it, it is hard to know where performers end and stage hands begin. It includes some men continuing to dance around the maypole as a way of wrapping the ribbons tight before carrying it off, and it really looks as if workmen are taking up the lino in the kitchen. The pub paints a picture of 1950s English village life as people play darts, and patrons head to and emerge from the ‘ladies’ and ‘gents’ throughout the scene. When Vašek sings ‘Ma… ma… ma… matička’ everyone moves to the other side of the room within seconds, and it is noticeable how the women tend to stay in groups, which is realistic since many may not have ventured into a pub alone in the ’50s.

The Furiant is choreographed so that it reflects the clash between the old and new. Some parts see everyone practically jiving, which perturbs the minister, but he gets into step when old time dancing takes over, though by the end he seems to have embraced the modern rather more. The Skočná that follows in Act III is one of the undoubted highlights of the evening. On and in front of an erected proscenium stage, real circus performers, led by Jennifer Robinson, perform a substantial routine comprising entertaining tricks and acrobatics that demonstrate real skill, and create the type of exuberant experience one does not want to end. What is particularly impressive about all of the dance routines across the evening is just how well they fit both the rhythms and overall spirit of the music. This is attributable not only to Darren Royston’s brilliant choreography, but also to Jac van Steen’s conducting of the Philharmonia Orchestra. He led the performances here in 2019, and elicits playing of the highest order as the balance and precision that he achieves are never to the detriment of capturing the wit, pathos or other intent of the score. 

With the exception of Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts, and it is hard to picture anyone portraying the Ringmaster in this production so well, all of the principals are different to 2019, but undoubtedly superb. As Mařenka, Pumeza Matshikiza reveals a full yet nuanced soprano that possesses a great flexibility so that all of the required sounds are shaped extremely well. Oliver Johnston, with his strong and vibrant tenor, captures Jeník’s determination to succeed and wry humour in equal measure, while the chemistry between the pair manifests itself from very early on as they even reveal it through the simple act of making sandwiches together. The Bartered Bride is ultimately a comedy, and this production makes the scene in which Mařenka refuses to listen to Jeník’s explanation particularly amusing, but what comes across most clearly is the extent of her grief because she genuinely believes that the man who loves her has sold out. 

As Kecel, David Ireland’s presence is as commanding as his bass-baritone, while John Findon, with his splendid tenor, is genuinely funny as Vašek, though he always ensures that the humour remains in keeping with the character. Whether he is nervous because a woman has merely passed him to go to the ‘ladies’, desperately trying to stomach even just a few gulps of beer or simply sprinting to the (wrong) toilet, it is impossible not to warm to him. With strong support from Yvonne Howard as Ludmila, William Dazeley as Krušina, Isabelle Peters as Esmeralda, Frazer Scott as the Strongman, John Savournin as Mícha and Louise Winter as Háta, this is not so much an evening in which there is nothing not to like, as one in which there is everything to enthuse about.

• Garsington Opera’s 2023 season continues until 28 July. For details of all of its productions and tickets visit its website. 

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The Bartered Bride review – beg, borrow or barter for a ticket at Garsington Opera