Celebrating its 25th anniversary season, British Youth Opera are once again exploring the 19th- and 20th-century lyric repertoire in staging their first ever production of Smetana’s comic opera The Bartered Bride alongside Judith Weir’s A Night at the Chinese Opera. Composed between 1863 and 66, The Bartered Bride is Smetana’s second opera and undoubtedly his most successful, and it provides a huge variety of challenges for the young singer. The music ranges from lyrical and expansive Czech folk melody to precise and sharply delivered comedy, requiring impeccable technique and impressive acting skills from all members of the sizeable cast and equally sensitive playing from the orchestra. The chorus writing is also colourful and dynamic, and, in Kit Hesketh-Harvey’s extremely witty English translation, the diction and delivery of the text is paramount. Today’s version is the product of many, quite drastic, revisions to the original score, which started life as a two-act version with spoken dialogue interspersing the musical numbers.
As is very popular in many an English opera house, BYO decided to update the traditional Czech setting, by staging the action in Prague, Oklahoma, with a plethora of cowboy hats and gingham skirts. I have to admit, I was bemused and a little uncertain about this juxtaposition of overtly Czech musical character and American setting, but the convincing portrayal of the village barn dance and the enthusiasm with which the cast line-danced to Czech polkas and furiants completely won me over by the end of Act I and I had a thoroughly enjoyable evening. I did feel that Smetana’s wish to create a truly Czech operatic genre was slightly undermined by the all-American country feel, but it was all so entertaining that I could forgive them the occasional ‘Yeehah!’ and sit back and enjoy the show.
When faced with an ensemble of ‘young singers’, one’s expectations are inevitably slightly altered, but there was no need to make allowances for tonight’s cast. The stuttering, twitching, and completely hilarious Vašek (Samuel Furness) alongside the greedy, sly and manipulative Kecal (Matthew Stiff) provided some moments of pure comedic genius, which juxtaposed the vocal lyricism of the amorous lovers Jenik (Luis Gomes) and Mařenka (Katherine Crompton). The love duet in Act I showed both singers at their best, the romantic vocal lines, with their unmistakable folk-like feel, intertwining and creating the unique ‘native Czech music’ which Smetana vowed to deliver when he began the lengthy creation of this work. Crompton in particular put on a stunning show – the range of the role is huge and she showed supreme control in her pianissimo top notes while also providing some moments of pure drama in her tempestuous third-act quarrel with her beloved. For any fans of slapstick in the audience the circus troupe kindly obliged, with an ebullient French ringmaster guiding us through a performance complete with clowns, sword eaters, strong men and dancing bears.
The chorus were equally entertaining throughout, which was a challenging task, as BYO had decided for a minimal set, meaning that nearly the whole cast were onstage for a large part of the performance. The glittering backdrop that provided the majority of the set created quite an intriguing prop, as you could see through to where the chorus members were often providing an entertaining background scene while the main characters were on the front stage. I thought this was an ingenious idea, and worked well with the general village dance feel, with nosy neighbours overhearing all the gossip. Supported by a beautifully balanced orchestra, the lively chorus numbers were often accompanied by exuberant dancing, which added to the overall impression of life and vigour that the entire cast gave off. Unfortunately their enthusiasm got the better of them occasionally and they beat the orchestra to the finish line in a few numbers, which was a shame.
As an opera, The Bartered Bride is as eclectic as its chequered history suggests, but it nonetheless fully deserves the success and worldwide fame that it eventually found. As a political statement, it is rather unlikely, but for pure entertainment, I thought it was the perfect choice for a memorable 25th anniversary season, with the right balance of comedy and musical talent showcasing everything this rich and diverse opera company has to offer.
Peacock TheatrePortugal Street, Off Kingsway
London Greater London United Kingdom WC2A 2HT