Receiving its second new production in a major German house, after Die Bayerische Staatsoper, Die verkaufte Braut, best known in English speaking lands as The Bartered Bride, was performed in Kurt Honolka’s German version. These two new German productions starred the same Slovak tenor, Pavol Breslik.

Hrachuhí Bassénz (Marie) and Pavol Breslik (Hans) © Semperoper Dresden/Ludwig Olah
Hrachuhí Bassénz (Marie) and Pavol Breslik (Hans)
© Semperoper Dresden/Ludwig Olah

German and Slav were once one of the default lines of Central Europe, yet the baptismal name of Smetana was Friedrich and his first language was German, only learning Czech late in life. The Semperoper stands on the bank of the River Elbe, which rises in Czechia and one of its major tributaries is the Vltava. Both nations are united by a love of copious amounts of beer, bibulously celebrated in the opening chorus of Act 2.

To add to the mix the producer, Mariame Clément is French. During the bustling overture four dancing couples – the women in traditional red skirts and ribbons with the men in tight breeches and embroidered shirts in elaborate floral headdresses – appeared through the plush house curtain. An evening of folkloric quaintness seemed in prospect but they are stage-managed by a sharp-suited compère with mullet hairstyle.

The curtain opens and we are in Kezal’s “Village” and he compèred the show himself. Clément and designer Julia Hansen have set the opera in a ‘heritage’ tourist trap in the period around the fall of the Iron Curtain, 1989-1990. Folkloric costumes and acts are part of the entertainment, mounted for the tourists who are plied with expensive cocktails. Marie is a barmaid. Kezal sings “Today, all that matters is money,” and for a plot that hangs on the supposed ‘bartering’, or rather ‘selling’ , of a bride for 300 Gulden, the materialism of the hero and mercenary attitude of both sets of parents strikes home. The established order has collapsed and with it traditional family values and, in the circumstances, it is perfectly feasible that the estranged tenor hero has spent years abroad.

Sächsischer Staatsopernchor Dresden © Semperoper Dresden/Ludwig Olah
Sächsischer Staatsopernchor Dresden
© Semperoper Dresden/Ludwig Olah

A note is probably needed to clarify the names of the principal characters as Jeník, Marenka, Vašek and Kecal in the original here become Hans, Marie, Wenzel and Kezal, though oddly the parents retain Czech names, a generational divide perhaps.

The traditional elements of the tale, lovers almost parted by their parents and the contractual machinations of the local ‘Mr Fix-it’ broker, could have been spoiled by the updating, but Clément’s feel for humour, her sharp eye for character, and the generally strong acting from the cast made for a comic evening of touching humanity. The darker minor key moments were highlighted by spotlighting and frozen movement.

As Hans, Breslik, clad in denim, began as a youthful chancer. Through the vagaries of his supposedly bartering his sweetheart, though with the trick up his sleeve that the son of the rich Micha to whom he surrenders her is in fact himself, the course of true love does eventually run smooth. His singing was fresh and stylish, though a little on the light side for even this moderate sized auditorium.

Hrachuchí Bassénz, now an ensemble member here, displayed the features of her recent Covent Garden appearances, with her warm Italianate tone but at times occluded with unclear diction. Her virtues were at their best in her last act lament, believing she has been sold-off by Hans.

Benjamin Bruns as the gormless shy Wenzel, Hans’ half-brother and supposed bridegroom of Marie, managed the stuttering humour adeptly with a fine balance of pathos and likability. His sizeable, ringing tenor would surely make him a prospective Hans. Duped by Marie and laughed at by everyone, he at least finds a possible future with the delightfully sparky Esmeralda of Tania Lorenzo. The circus in the last act, of which she is part, become a troupe of entertainers, but here finally mounting a hilariously ‘cod' Medieval banquet, all too familiar to any visitor to European historic sites.

Tijl Faveyts (Kezal), Barry Coleman (Circus Director) © Semperoper Dresden/Ludwig Olah
Tijl Faveyts (Kezal), Barry Coleman (Circus Director)
© Semperoper Dresden/Ludwig Olah

The would be mastermind, Kezal, of all these shenanigans finally tricked by one even sharper than he, was given an outsized performance by the forceful bass-baritone of Martin Winkler. Other roles were capably taken by members of the house ensemble. The vigorous chorus also showed dancing talent when drawn into the polkas and furiants.

What brought real distinction and authenticity to the evening, as so often in this house, was the outstanding playing of the Staatskapelle conducted by Tomáš Netopil. From the start of the overture with its rapidly scurrying string fugato and pointed phrasing from the woodwinds, one felt the true sense of Smetana’s Czech-inflected rhythms and harmonies. This is an orchestra that two nights earlier had brought colour and style to Rameau’s Platée, while other members were playing Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg under Christian Thielemann in Salzburg.

An opera inescapably associated with its folklore elements and national status was, in this production, both a locally coloured celebration and a ripe comedy.

***11