We often complain, privately if not on these pages, about opera performances being under-rehearsed. Garsington Opera’s season opener, Smetana’s The Bartered Bride, is one of the best rehearsed operas I can ever remember.

Maypole dancing © Clive Barda
Maypole dancing
© Clive Barda

The 24-strong chorus were called upon to sing a whole series of numbers in Czech – which can hardly have been the easiest language for them – competing for attention with no less an orchestra than the Philharmonia. They did so with confidence and togetherness of diction, producing plenty of volume and, more importantly, boundless enthusiasm. All the while, they were executing stage movements of extraordinary complexity, accomplishing them with precision and some panache. Director Paul Curran shifts the small village community to 1950s England (you can imagine yourself on the set of Gloriana). For Act 1, designer Kevin Knight lovingly recreates a church hall and its associated kitchen. During the interlude that follows, the cast on-stage morph this into the village pub of Act 2 without missing a beat, in the slickest piece of scene changing you’ll ever see.

Brenden Gunnell (Jeník) and chorus in Act 2 © Clive Barda
Brenden Gunnell (Jeník) and chorus in Act 2
© Clive Barda

The sets and costumes – particularly those for the Act 3 circus troupe – are rendered in loving detail. But what impresses most is the Personenregie. The main plot takes place against a backdrop of every villager doing their own thing, appropriate to the character denoted by their costume: they flirt, they practise the latest dances, they avoid the obviously smelly worker in overalls, they steal the sandwiches, the greasers square up to each other. One of many moments that creased me up with laughter came in Act 2, when our hero Jeník is getting angry with the nasty, bullying mayor Kecal and starts throwing darts at the pub dartboard. At each increasingly angry and decreasingly accurate throw, we watch the drinkers at the adjacent table cower in synchronised terror. In Act 3, the circus troupe were doing proper modern circus – unicycles, aerial hoops, Cyr wheel: even Stuart Jackson’s hapless Vašek was being taught to juggle.

The orchestral score of The Bartered Bride has a certain uniformity of texture. But it has glorious variation in rhythm through all those dance numbers. Jac van Steen and the Philharmonia played it with charm and Bohemian lilt by the bucket load: I wondered if the orchestra has been receiving some intravenous injections of Czechness from Jakub Hrůša, one of their Principal Guest Conductors. Van Steen also had the levels beautifully controlled: in spite of there being a barnstorming chorus and various singers at different power levels, both voices and instruments were always clearly audible.

Natalya Romaniw (Mařenka), Brenden Gunnell (Jeník) © John Snelling
Natalya Romaniw (Mařenka), Brenden Gunnell (Jeník)
© John Snelling

When Natalya Romaniw emerged from the womb, the fates probably already had her down as Mařenka, the bartered bride of the title. She obviously adored the role and there’s something wonderful about hearing a light comic role sung by a full blown dramatic soprano who has all the flexibility needed for the fun parts but can then turn on the operatic pathos when needed. Romaniw’s voice is creamy smooth and completely solid and if she may have overacted the sulks a tad, it’s hard to blame her. Besides, what other prima donna can finish her act with a perfect cartwheel?

Act 3 circus troupe © Clive Barda
Act 3 circus troupe
© Clive Barda

The other big voice of the evening was bass Joshua Bloom as Kecal. It’s a huge voice in the middle and upper parts of the register, a voice with which Bloom stamped authority on proceedings: how can anyone imagine that things won’t turn out as Kecal plans? Bloom did a fine job of the rapid-fire patter numbers; he did, however, lose power on the money notes at the very bottom.

Brenden Gunnell has a clear and lightish tenor which made for an appealing Jeník, growing in strength and confidence as the evening progressed. Vašek is a difficult role, requiring a tenor who can produce pathos, lyricism and appeal while stammering in Czech: Stuart Jackson did a creditable job, although he could have done with a fraction more power. The various smaller roles were sung entertainingly, and the lyrical sextet was quite beautiful.

Boy meets girl. Obstacles appear, to be improbably removed. Everyone is reconciled and they all live happily ever after. It’s standard rom-com stuff and no-one is going to put The Bartered Bride at the top of their list of the most sophisticated operas ever written. But that doesn’t stop it being enormous fun and this vivacious, meticulously executed production is a joyful experience from beginning to end. There aren’t many tickets left: grab one while you can.

****1