The Bartered Bride

Reviewer's rating.

Garsington has revived its brilliant and fizzing production of The Bartered Bride by Smetana and it’s just as delightful and illuminating of the actual work itself as ever. At the interval some people I overheard were complaining about the update. They had never seen the opera before and wanted it to be a traditional chocolate box Czech, cute little village life approach in folk costume.

I felt the subtext of the opera very well served by updating it to a British village in the 1950s. The ability of an audience at Garsington to relate to the undercurrents of conservatism from the older folks and imminent rebelliousness from the younger is clarified and the satire and comedy much more relatable. The production has a lot of movement and wit right from the start, even before the overture, when there is a clash in the gathering at the village hall between the vicar, who is going to play an LP of The Bartered Bride as background music, and the kid who is an Elvis Presley wannabe bringing his Elvis recording along as a substitute. This clever production is full of details that keep your mind and your eyes as busy as your ears throughout, with a lot of dazzling movement and choreography by Darren Royston. The Maypole dance, the polka that is performed as a twist and many more moments keep a sense of sparkling yet serious detail before us throughout. And you do feel, because of the sense of collaboration from everyone on the stage, that you’re watching a living community.

Rosie Purdie has done an excellent job of reviving this Smetana opera that is so iconic for the Czech people and was so important in helping kick off the whole mid-nineteenth century Europe-wide nationalistic approach to music. Even though he didn’t use actual folk music, Smetana captured the Bohemian spirit and the sonorities – and Jac van Steen is conducting with great verve and attention to detail an orchestra (the philharmonia orchestra) that’s as polished and responsive as one would wish. The solo moments for different instruments were outstanding and the sonority of the whole was stylistically acute.

The casting of each role (including a character or back story for each member of the chorus)is so good that it’s invidious to pick people out. Everyone on that stage is well suited to his or her role, characterizing each part as clearly and convincingly as they sing them. Naturally Marenka is a standout—and in this case the beautiful Pumeza Matshikiza simply makes me want to see her in more roles. She has a luscious, captivating voice that I want to hear in Verdi and Puccini and Janacek; her acting is totally convincing. Oliver Johnston is a fine Jenik. I think his vocal timbre and his physicality suit the appeal , the back story and cleverness of the character he is playing. The acting of this central couple makes one believe in their chemistry. One also sympathises with and understands their frustrations, hurts and fears.

For the stammering brother, Vasek, I liked the vocal and conviction of John Findon’s poignant and comic portrayal. Are my ears deceiving me or is there Wagnerian heft to his voice? David Ireland as Kecal makes a superbly irritating self-serving marriage broker.

Designer Kevin Knight deserves special praise for his visually interesting and attractive sets and costumes. The transformation from the village hall to the pub elicited appreciative applause from the audience. Returning from the long break for the picnic the stage had been totally changed for the memorable circus scene.

As always, the circus brought the house down with delight. Yet with all the busy action and eye-catching activity throughout, the standout moments for me were the quite ones – the contemplative arias by Marenka and Janek, sung with totally moving musicality and concentration and acted with real understanding of the emotions, were among the best. I must praise Yvonne Howard as Marenka’s mother too; and Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts as the energetic and manipulative Ringmaster. The Garsington Experience adds to the pleasures of the evening so see this one live if you can. But if you cannot, the 2019 performance is still up on YouTube.