“My music is rhythmic because I am Czech… the natural music of the Czechs is rhythm – strong and agile rhythm.” (Martinů). How well the conductor Jac van Steen and the director Paul Curran understood this, and how superbly they brought it out in this joyous production of Smetana’s comic opera. This first night marked the 30th anniversary of Garsington Opera, and no better celebration could be imagined.
The challenges in staging this work come from the dances and the setting, and both were managed here with style and sophistication. Neither the polka nor the furiant (the energetic dance which was much loved by Smetana) are easy to perform, but the Garsington Opera Chorus had been so well trained that even when executing the most complex of routines they positively burst with youthful verve.
Anyone expecting a folksy Moravian setting might be briefly disappointed, but the concept here was done with such flair and was such fun that they would soon be delighting in it. Kevin Knight’s designs for Act I bring us straight to the heart of the kind of England for which some will forever be nostalgic, symbolized by one of those village halls in, perhaps, 1959, replete with nagging signs, buxom ladies bossing the young about and nubile girls in the sort of dresses which New Look and H&M are selling now, in what seems to be a Frock Revival. All the village characters are there, from the doughty nurse giving dance lessons to the nervous vicar, all finely observed and each with distinct traits.
In contrast to the merriment in the hall itself, we have the anguish of the beautiful Mařenka and her beloved Jenik, played out in a perfect replica of a village hall kitchen. The lovers were sung by Natalya Romaniw and Brenden Gunnell, Welsh and American respectively, but you could so easily see them as Czech villagers. Romaniw has the ideal voice for Mařenka, powerful and rich yet sweet when required, and Gunnell’s heroic tone makes him perfect casting for Jenik – you could imagine them together in Jenůfa or Katya Kabanova.
Stuart Jackson, fast becoming a favourite on what might be called the Summer Festival Circuit, rose to the challenges of Vašek with his characteristic aplomb, singing with lyrical grace whilst acting the role of a bumbling, nervous suitor. In complete contrast, Joshua Bloom’s Kecal was a study in bombast and over-confidence, and sung in the beautifully burnished tone we recall from his Figaro. Heather Shipp and Peter Savidge made much of the small roles of Mařenka’s parents.
The scene change between the first and second acts deserves special mention as the most polished any of us can recall; a village hall becomes a pub in a few swift movements, as superbly co-ordinated as the dancing. No wonder it got a round of applause. As with the first act, the pub setting is wonderfully detailed, right down to the dart board and the cranky fellows round the tables. Brenden Gunnell’s ecstatic singing of ‘Jak mozná verit’ made this an especially memorable scene.
Jac van Steen obtained playing bristling with vigour, wit and pathos from the Philharmonia Orchestra. Sadly, illness prevented us from experiencing the second half of this wonderfully imagined and musically classy show, but testimony from reliable musician friends assures us that it was every bit as enjoyable as the first.