With Swansea-born soprano Natalya Romaniw in the leading role, this Bartered Bride is no submissive chattel. Far from it, she is a feisty and fiery woman who is as strong and resourceful in her determination to get the man she wants as Romaniw is in the exquisite singing of Smetana’s score.
This comic opera can smack of being distasteful, a bride being sold by her parents in an arranged marriage, but hey, there are plenty of arranged marriages in this so-called modern world with some more blatantly cash driven than others.
What makes this sort of acceptable is that the tables are turned on the marriage broker Kecal (and both sets of parents) in a typically operatic double identity ruse. Bass Joshua Bloom bring the role to life with Italianate hand gesture panache.
No need to explain the ruse, apart from that it means the two lovers stick to their contracts but end up still marrying one another and being quids in. The evil stepmother gets her comeuppance – chased by her own biological, stammering, over mummy coddled son – and neglected son gets his bride (who in turn gets her groom). That son, Vašek, is nicely performed with gentle tenor voice by Stuart Jackson. It is difficult to understand why audiences contemporaneous with Smetana audiences would find stammering funny but equally it would be annoying to PC this aspect of the role by removing it.
Rather than a Slavic rural scene, this gloriously funny Paul Curran production sets the opera in 1950s England where the local vicar “plays” Smetana’s wonderful overture on a record player in the village hall, to the disgust of teddy Boys who want to play their Elvis album. All good fun with the local fold twisting to the Czech composer’s lively music. We then move to the pub, for another Kevin Knight set, where most of the dealing (and double-dealing) takes place, before a quite magical post-interval circus scene with witty yet highly skilled performers, led by Troedyrhiw-born tenor Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts, delighting the audience on a glorious Garsington sunny evening.
The delicious antics on stage are matched by playing from the pit under the baton of Jac van Steen, conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra, and a chorus obviously delighting in their neatly drawn individual roles from smelly farmer and WI types of village to a mum-to-be and those Teddy Boys. They all help create the humour including jolly sandwich making at the beginning, helping show this Mařenka takes no prisoners when her intended, Jenek, sung by a powerful Brendell Gunnell, makes a hash of it and when she takes her frustration out by furiously cutting up a cream sponge cake and stuffing a handful in her mouth. Gunnell may be the romantic lead but he too makes it clear he has fire in his belly and anger in his soul.
Romaniw continues her Garsington association next summer with Dvořák’s Rusalka.
Main image:Natalya Romaniw and Brendell Gunnell
Images: Clive Barda.