Bartered then betrothed [by Sharu Delilkan]
The word ‘opera’ conjures images of elitism and grandeur among people who don’t frequent the art form.
And if you identify with that majority, NBR NZ Opera‘s version of The Bartered Bride would be a great first opera to see.
It’s easy to understand, simple storyline and of course it’s highly accessible because it’s in English. That doesn’t mean that you won’t occasionally end up glancing at the surtitles. However, it is a lot less taxing when you don’t have to yoyo between the surtitles and the stage to get comprehensive understanding of what’s happening.
Bedřich Smetana‘s dream to establish a Czech national opera was realised with The Bartered Bride, his second opera. A comic look at Bohemian life, it’s a tale of true love prevailing despite the best efforts of a scheming marriage broker, a couple of social-climbing parents and a dancing bear.
The NBR NZ Opera’s production, that has been adapted into English by Daniel Slater, is set in 1972 – four years after the Prague Spring. The rebellion against the Communist government has been suppressed. The so-called ‘normalisaton’ period, the Soviet term for toe the party line or suffer the consequences, had set in.
Following a beautifully played overture, the curtain adorned with Soviet-esque revolutionary posters rose to reveal a very exciting pastoral setting. Robert Innes Hopkins‘ clever scenery gave an amazing feeling of depth with a stage complete with a practicing choir, was a great way to introduce the Chapman Tripp Opera Chorus members.
The dramatic multi-purpose set was easily transformed into a celebration stage for Liberation Day using the strategically-placed four poles, allowing strings of flags and light bulbs to set the ambience. The addition of the circus caravan in the second half also works amazingly well, hiding the treasures within that were eventually revealed.
The 1970s era was perfectly reflected in both Hopkins’ costumes and Annette Beaney’s hairstyling. And as the chorus dispersed we were introduced to the two main characters Mařenka (Anna Leese) and Jeník (Peter Wedd). The entire story is hinged on the couple’s undying love for one another. The undermining of the conniving village mayor Kecal (Conal Coad) is a major source of frustration for the couple throughout. Dominant themes in Smetana’s traditional story revolve around love, loss, confusion, despair, hope, more confusion and the inevitable happy ending. Something quite unique in the opera setting as it usually has a tragic finish. I can tell you the ending without giving the game away since the programme clearly states, “love will prevail”.
Allowing the plot to be fairly transparent as it unfolds allows the audience to concentrate on the performances – singing, dancing, acting – and staging, making this opera particularly easy to appreciate. In fact the more traditional crowd may have been a bit adverse to the contemporary setting, something I overheard at the interval when a dolled-up older couple left in a huff trailing the words “disgraceful”, “disgusting” and “outrageous” over their shoulders as they waddled off toward their 4-wheel drive home.
I loved the way dancing featured prominently in The Bartered Bride. It was interesting seeing opera singers showing off their dancing talents. Associate director/choreographer Tim Claydon certainly had his work cut out for him, taking the singers through their paces and teaching them traditional Bohemian dances such as the polka and furiant and the Slavic folk-dance, the Skoèná. Taryn Fiebig as Esmeralda, whose background includes being a cellist, definitely surprises with her beautifully pointed toes coupled with her melodic voice. Her marionette-like movements enhanced the fabulous big top experience.
Great fun was had with all the scenes featuring the chorus especially the hilarious bar brawl in Act 1. And alcohol featured heartily in many of this English adaptation’s scenes, set in bars or involving drinking beer or champagne, as a metaphor for the remnants of the class system.
Another crowd pleaser was the introduction of the travelling circus. The circus artists’ excellent performances reeked of circus coordinator Eve Gordon‘s precision and professionalism. Jeff Kingsford-Brown‘s ringmaster brought everything together with his humorous presentation which prompted a great deal of chuckles as well as applause.
In many ways the English humour comes through, poking fun at the opera genre itself and the often dated plot lines, on one potential love match an unforgettable part of the libretto included “She’s got a tractor – that’s a factor”.
The Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra shone brightly, not allowing them to miss a beat, under the astute baton of conductor Oliver von Dohnányi.
Micha (Richard Green) and Háta’s (Helen Medlyn) buffoon son Vasek, played by Andrew Glover is a vocal stand out. Glover’s incorporation of the stammer and stutter in his singing is highly commendable and convincing. He also endears himself to the audience with his great acting and ‘moonwalking’ skills that even surprised the cast when taking his bow.
I guess if you want to poke holes in anything at all, taking the piss out of people that stutter as a vehicle for humour could be considered as un-PC by some accounts. But that’s what the English are best at. In fact come to think of it maybe that’s why the couple left at half time. Whatever the case, the stuttering buffoon seemed to go down a treat with the crowd.
Leese and Wedd gave strong performances both vocally and in their portrayal of the lead characters Mařenka and Jeník.
Overall The Bartered Bride was accessible, easy on the eye and ear and I think it’s different take on the original version succeeds on all accounts – it’s smart, slick and funny while still remaining skillful. A production that the NBR NZ Opera should be extremely proud of.
The Bartered Bride is presented by NBR NZ Opera and it played at the ASB Theatre, Aotea Centre from 22-29 Sept. More information see NBR NZ Opera.