Glorious voices soar above Czechoslovakian-set opera gloom
NBR New Zealand Opera’s production of Smetana’s comic masterpiece The Bartered Bride, which began its Auckland season at the Aotea Centre on Saturday, effectively reprises a famous production first mounted 14 years ago by Opera North in Britain.
Director Daniel Slater, conductor Oliver Von Dohnányi and production designer Robert Innes Hopkins are reassembled from the original production team.
But it has a fresh cast featuring a mix of New Zealand, Australian and English singers, headed by Anna Leese as Mařenka, Peter Wedd as Jenik (the ultimately triumphant young lovers) and Conal Coad as marriage broker Kecal.
Slater’s 1998 production launched his high-profile international career. This year alone he is directing operas in Houston, San Francisco, Oslo, Estonia and London, as well as in New Zealand.
The governing concept of Slater’s production is updating the opera's setting from a 19th century Bohemian village in the Austro-Hungarian Empire to 1972, after the Spring Revolution when the Iron Curtain nation of Czechoslovakia tried desperately to throw off the yoke of Russian domination.
The villain of the piece, the wily mayor/marriage broker Kecal, carries much of the political dimension of the story, with his attempts to manipulate young lovers Mařenka and Jenik presented as a Khrushchev- or Brezhnev-like officious interference with individual freedoms. In this production the personal is undoubtedly political.
The political context is most overt in broadly satirical anti-Soviet elements in the circus which opens the post-interval third act in a blaze of colour, movement and music. This audience-pleasing sequence was ingeniously staged with genuine acrobatic and comic skills being displayed by performers unexpectedly spilling out of an onstage circus caravan.
In keeping with the modernised setting, the costumes are characterised by East European nerdy and/or drab. Even the heroine Mařenka is frumpily dressed throughout in jeans, shirt and jerkin, a disappointment to at least some in the audience who would have enjoyed a little more glamour and sartorial spectacle.
Only the circus, with the fetching Esmerelda (Australian Taryn Fiebig) garbed as a colourful Bohemian puppet, and some dancers in peasant dress, offered any opportunity for traditional dazzle.
Likewise, the set, severely functional and unglamorous, with its platform inner-stage defined by tall corner posts from which lights and flags were hung, eschewed the kind of colourful village kitsch common to conventional productions of this work.
Much of the action took place at commonplace tables and chairs, lined up in rows for the chorus to perform or strewn about the stage for the scheming and drinking (the whole production is lubricated with handles of frothy beer, dispensed from barrels on stage).
From the scampering rhythms of the famous overture, scintillatingly played by von Dohnányi and the Auckland Philharmonic Orchestra, action proceeded at a brisk pace, the excellent chorus – numbering more than 40, including children – being especially well choreographed, with plenty of engaging business and character cameos to keep the audience interested.
The principal singers all performed with distinction. As Mařenka, Anna Leese’s glorious soprano voice mingled well with the clear and expressive tenor of Peter Wedd’s Jenik. She was especially effective in the poignant aria expressing her confusion and sense of betrayal when she thinks her lover has "bartered" her for cash.
Conal Code made a marvellous Kecal, looking and sounding the part to perfection, with his jowl-wobbling deep notes and rapid-fire repetitions.
All the other parts were performed well, especially in the ensemble numbers. Andrew Glover made a suitably gormless but well-articulated Vašek, while the parents of the male rivals, Jenik and Vašek (as played by John Antonio and Patricia Wright in one case, and Richard Green and Helen Medlyn in the other) all demonstrated a clear conception of their characters and were fully adequate vocally to their roles.
It was a grand night at the opera which all involved can feel well pleased with.
Peter Simpson is an Auckland writer