The Bartered Bride, premiered in 1866, is considered to be Smetana’s masterpiece in the operatic genre and is widely regarded as the national opera of the Czech Republic. Despite this, for their second and last production this year, New Zealand Opera elected to perform the opera in English translation rather than the original Czech, aiming to speak to their audiences in a more direct fashion. The updated production was borrowed from Opera North, under the direction of Daniel Slater, and the end result was an enjoyable, if uneven, evening.

Anna Leese and Peter Wedd © Neil Mackenzie
Anna Leese and Peter Wedd
© Neil Mackenzie

The translation was successful overall, although Mařenka yelling “Stuff it!” at her parents in the dialogue was a little inharmonious with the tone of the rest of the translation. Diction was very clear from most of the cast. However, when the principals burst into broad New Zealand accents in the spoken dialogue, the contrast with the operatic singing in the previous numbers could be jarring.

The setting for this production is 1970s Czechoslovakia, on Liberation Day some years after the Prague Spring. Our Kecal was the mayor instead of a marriage broker, representing the corrupt and oppressive nature of the Communist regime’s power. To further this point, the Ringmaster told anti-Soviet jokes in his monologue. The sets were simple but served their purpose more than adequately: a village square with chairs that were moved in and out. For the second half, there was a large circus wagon parked in the middle of the stage. What seemed to be lacking to me was a sure sense of direction; too often the principles seemed to be standing or pacing around awkwardly.

The standout performance came from Anna Leese as Mařenka. She has been singing a lot overseas lately (in Eugene Onegin at Opera Holland Park among other places) and it was great to have her back home in New Zealand for this production. The emotional climax of the whole performance was her deeply felt rendition of the third-act aria, sung partly on her knees as she effortlessly moulded Smetana’s phrases with liquid legato. This was followed up with a spirited delivery of the duet with Jeník, high Cs pealing out into the auditorium.

Peter Wedd’s Jeník was less successful overall. While the high notes rang out fearlessly, a lot of Smetana’s vocal writing seemed to lie in a lower, less comfortable part of Wedd’s range and his voice took on a slightly occluded quality for much of the performance, only clearing up for the final scenes. More sympathetic was Vašek, plaintively sung and acted by Andrew Glover. He played the naïve youngster to the tee, never overdone. His bashful yet excited behaviour as he fell in love with Esmeralda and agreed to elope was very touching.

Kecal was played by the very experienced Australian bass Conal Coad. What he has lost in vocal steadiness and amplitude was made up for by his skilled characterisation and he more-or-less successfully negotiated the tongue-twisting patter demanded by the role.

The secondary roles were well characterised, particularly the bitchy Háta of Helen Medlyn and the more compassionate Ludmila of fellow opera veteran Patricia Wright. Their husbands were less satisfactorily vocalised, however. Australian soprano Taryn Fiebig made much of the tiny role of Esmeralda, not only singing beautifully in her duet with the Ringmaster, but also dancing with great comic flair. Additionally, she participated in the Dance of the Comedians as a giant string puppet. This dance also involved a group of clowns getting up to assorted acrobatic hijinks on stage – all extremely well done and, judging from the applause, a hit with the audience. The chorus sang well, although they sometimes sounded a little subdued. They also could have done with a little more direction.

After a slightly scrappy start in the overture, the orchestra mostly played extremely well. Conductor Oliver von Dohnányi had a good grasp of the folk idiom, providing just the right touches of delicious folksy rubato in the Polka and Dance of the Comedians. He showed similar command in last year’s Cav/Pag double bill (obviously quite a different proposition) so it is to be hoped that he returns for further New Zealand Opera performances.

All in all, it was a pleasing evening at the opera, even if it never reached the heights of New Zealand Opera’s stunning Rigoletto earlier in the year. Part of the problem probably lies with the work itself – the vocal writing just doesn’t lend itself to spectacular singing. Additionally, certain aspects of the plot can seem quite dated even in a more “modern” production. In particular, Vašek’s stuttering can, in this day and age, seem just a bit offensive. Nevertheless, well done to New Zealand Opera for putting it on and looking forward to hear what they have in store for us next year.

***11