Daniel Slater's version of The Bartered Bride, Smetana’s joyously foot-tapping assertion of Czech national identity, first produced by Opera North in 1998, is as sunny and life-affirming as ever, a confident revival of an old success - and free of any folksy cuteness which might have turned it into some 19th century period piece. In a way, though, it is a sort of period piece of another, more poignant variety: set in 1972, just a few years after the Prague Spring which was squashed by Russian tanks, a major event which must have been seen on the news at the time by many in the audience, it becomes a celebration of resilience and the power of subversive humour.

Kate Valentine (Mařenka) © Robert Workman
Kate Valentine (Mařenka)
© Robert Workman

We guess this from the start. After the famous overture has speeded up the blood supply, the orchestra conducted with great verve by Anthony Kraus, the villagers sing to us because they are obliged to, in a compulsory choir practice, the banal words very loosely associated with Sabina’s original Czech libretto, as part of an ironically-named Liberation Day. They are dressed in everyday modern clothes, because national dress is worn only by officially-sanctioned performers. Some kind of electrical installation clamped to a pole points into the blue sky. A few members of the red-scarved Young Pioneers (Opera North Children’s Chorus) join in the proceedings dutifully: by the end of the show they will be cartwheeling. The foreign oppressors are definitely not the Austrians of Smetana’s time.

Kecal, the mayor, is the local party man, a cunning authoritarian figure subtly played by James Cresswell, a bass who delivers his low notes with portentous effectiveness, and who is accompanied for most of the time by two sinister enforcers in smart coats. He has an unofficial stash of dollars in his jacket pocket, presumably American. Kate Valentine as Mařenka is charmingly feisty, and in command of every high note. She is particularly impressive in Act III, in the aria which leads to her dream of love, her hopes for the future representing more than just her own. American tenor Brenden Gunnell makes his Opera North debut as her lover Jeník, a pure and dramatic voice matching a strong stage presence. Nicholas Watts plays the rival younger brother Vašek almost as if he is a character in a Carry-On film, coming into his own not so much with his comic stuttering in “M-m-my mother said to me” in Act II (itself a period piece from a less politically correct era) but when he reveals the full extent of his vocal range at the beginning of Act III in “I can’t get it out of my head”. Particularly notable amongst the other characters is Háta, Jeník’s unpleasant mother: Fiona Kimm turns her effortlessly into a real viper.

Brenden Gunnell (Jeník) and Kate Valentine (Mařenka) © Robert Workman
Brenden Gunnell (Jeník) and Kate Valentine (Mařenka)
© Robert Workman

The updated translation by Leonard Hancock and David Pountney is freewheeling and full of contemporary references, for example to Leonid Brezhnev, the hardline Soviet leader. When Jiří the cirus manager (a precisely-enunciating Campbell Russell on the night I attended) addresses the locals in Act III, he is not just equipped with groan-inducing jokes, but delivers lines like “My puppets have more strings attached than an accord with Moscow”. I am wondering how many in the Leeds Grand Theatre understood his reference to vertigo and Jan Masaryk, the much-admired non-communist foreign minister who was pushed out of a high window in Prague in 1948 by Soviet agents. The circus puppets, tumblers and jugglers are wonderful, revealed to us as a pile of limp bodies piled into a trailer, who spring to life for Dance of the Comedians. They are athletic clowns with lurid wigs and heavy greasepaint who give a beautifully choreographed display (Tim Clayden, after Vanessa Gray) which looks like well-organised comic chaos.

Peter Savidge (Krušina), James Creswell (Kecal) and Ann Taylor (Ludmila) © Robert Workman
Peter Savidge (Krušina), James Creswell (Kecal) and Ann Taylor (Ludmila)
© Robert Workman

Dialogue written by director Daniel Slater is sharp and demotic, used in association with recitative. Kate Valentine's Scottish twang somehow sounded just right. Of course the dances – polka, furiant, skočná – are at the heart of the whole thing, and they are all played and performed with great vigour. By the time that Vašek runs in as an absurd Russian bear and the pig-headed manipulator Kecal is humiliated, with the true lovers reunited, we are convinced that Czech freedom and 1989 can not be far away.

I was surprised that surtitles – which were turned on and off throughout – were considered necessary, and I am still trying to work out why they were there.

One performance of The Bartered Bride at Leeds Grand Theatre was dedicated just to groups of school pupils, their visit followed up by Opera North’s very active and imaginative Education department – and that must be an excellent idea.