Money and marriage: a dangerous mix, and one that lies at the heart of Bedrich Smetana’s opera The Bartered Bride. Under the direction of Daniel Slater, Opera North first revived this comedy within a context of 1970s Soviet Czechoslovakia in 1998, creating interesting parallels with the era of its initial conception, the mid nineteenth century. Now appearing at Nottingham’s Theatre Royal, the lively score conducted by Anthony Kraus carries a plot of arranged marriage, financial contracts, strained family relationships and, ultimately, love.
The story asks the ultimate question; can the younger generation outwit their elders and triumph in happiness?
Marenka falls in love with Jeník and envisages a happy future life with this stranger who has mysteriously arrived in her Bohemian village. However Marenka’s father, Krušina, has a different plan. Being heavily indebted to city man Tobias Micha, he enlists the village mayor, Kecal, to help resolve the situation. But there’s a catch: the debt will only be forgotten if Marenka marries Micha’s son. Is his daughter’s happiness worth more than a clean financial slate? Unfortunately for Marenka it would appear not. This powerful female character and her equally cunning first love do not accept their separated fates willingly though. The story asks the ultimate question; can the younger generation outwit their elders and triumph in happiness?
Daniel Slater’s direction situated the opera in the Soviet occupied Czechoslovakia of the 1970s and although the opera’s plot was played out against a background of organised celebration, with much beer drinking and circus antics, there was a clear undercurrent of social change. The youth were thinking, talking and wearing jeans: a simple, yet clever distinction made by designer Robert Innes Hopkins. The transient nature of the times was evident in the makeshift wooden stage, which was precariously lit and furnished, though nevertheless the village nerve centre throughout this opera, which examines the importance of marriage to a whole community.
I am inclined to think that the beauty of the words unfortunately got lost in the translation of the piece into English.
A strong cast portrayed the battle of young and old minds. Once settled into her role as Marenka, Kate Valentine gave an empowered and passionate performance as the steely village sweetheart who initially appears to meet her match in the wily and scheming mayor, performed by James Creswell with perfect humorous timing and tone. Fiona Kimm’s presence as the intervening and domineering Háta had all the physicality and sharp expression of the most evil of stepmothers. Credit must also be given to the circus performers for opening the second act in perfect slap-dash style; Jennifer France danced the role of Esmeralda, the puppet on a string, with stylish flair.
As an opera that is centred on the plight of happiness and love in the face of money and greed, the romantic moments of the plot had the potential to be very moving. However, the language of the libretto often failed to match the grandeur of the medium and the emotion of the scene. Given that Smetana aimed to illustrate the musicality of the Czech language with this opera, I am inclined to think that the beauty of the words unfortunately got lost in the translation of the piece into English. Nevertheless, this opera is a colourful and humorous watch and shows one girl’s fight against the gender stereotypes of her era.
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