BWW Review: THE BARTERED BRIDE, Garsington Opera
We haven't seen a lot of Smetana's The Bartered Bride in the UK recently. Bohemia's best-loved opera is rapidly becoming one of the repertoire's best-kept secrets, which is a shame because it's an enchanting comedy, whose colourful, folk-filled score might be propelled by exotic polka rhythms, but whose human drama feels deliciously close to home.
It's a familiarity that leaps with irresistible, irrepressible joy from Paul Curran's new production for Garsington Opera - a bar-raising opener for the company's 30th-anniversary season. Curran swaps Smetana's 19th-century Czech village for 20th-century England, a transposition that (a few plot niggles aside) brings this affectionate portrait of small-town life into wonderfully fresh focus.
The gentle satire starts early. As the Overture scuttles and bustles, so a rundown village hall fills with people - a shambling caretaker, an awkward Oxbridge vicar, a couple of Teddy boys, hairs slick with grease, the stalwart ladies of the WI, all sensible shoes and tightly clutched handbags.
Into this period fantasy of potted-meat sandwiches and tea urns Curran drops lovers Marenka (Natalya Romaniw) and Jenik (Brenden Gunnell). The confinement in this claustrophobic little community is clear, and Marenka's impatience with the business of courtship (because a business it definitely is in this carefully stratified world) has plenty to kick against.
Designer Kevin Knight creates three gloriously, generously detailed canvasses for this human drama. What would work perfectly well as a one-set show unexpectedly unfolds at the end of Act I to reveal a handsome pub for Act II, then a circus tent and stage for Act III.
It's all meticulously observed, thoroughly inhabited by the small chorus (a group of distinct individuals rather than a generic mass) who play darts in the pub or gossip at its small tables, ice cakes and take country dancing classes in the parish hall. Smetana's slightly wonky love-triangle may lack the heft of real conflict or character development, but framed in this living world it finds plenty of anchoring support and substance.
There's no arguing with the quality of the music either. The Philharmonia Orchestra are all fire and ferocity under Jac van Steen, driving the action (sometimes just a little perilously) with swaggering vigour, catching the energy of Darren Royston's choreography, which sets the chorus dancing in ever more elaborate scenarios.
Anyone who saw Romaniw's Tatyana in Garsington's 2016 Eugene Onegin will know how naturally this music sits for the Welsh soprano. Her Marenka is a coquette with an extra gear, sweetly flirtatious and smilingly stubborn but always with that charred depth and breadth of tone that hints at hidden ferocity.
She's well matched in Gunnell's Jenik, who has plenty of space at the top of his brawny tenor, and brings a pleasing hangdog swagger to his defiant life among the disapproving villagers. Stuart Jackson completes the triangle as the stuttering Vasek - his voice as brilliant as his manner is apologetic - with Joshua Bloom as marriage-broker Kecal. Bloom's is a big instrument, but not one he always deploys with care.
There's so much generosity about this production that, just occasionally, it overflows. Act III's circus is so full of jugglers, tumblers and acrobats that it risks drowning the orchestral accompaniment in the applause of an audience who have forgotten that they're watching an opera. In many ways it's the ultimate accolade, but it still seems like a shame when it's the Philharmonia that you're missing out on. But it's a small detail in what is, otherwise, an exuberantly performed, perfectly pitched first show of the season.
Photo Credit: Clive Barda