22 Feb 2011

The Bartered Bride, New York

In the mid-nineteenth century, every nationality that did not possess a national state felt a need to prove itself, to square its shoulders and claim nationhood with all the identifying marks of a nation: a language with a literature, a tricolor flag, a national anthem extolling the people’s stalwart character and the country’s landscape (inevitably the loveliest in the world), a national theater and a national opera to be performed there.

The national opera was often based on national legends and national folk tunes; when possible, national folk dances made an appearance.

Bedřich Smetana resolved to create the Czech national opera at a time when Czech nationhood was subsumed in that of the Austrian Empire, and he chose a legend about a Czech dynast. Scenes from this opera adorn the walls of the National Theater in Prague, which was constructed at that time, to this day. The opera is called Libuše (the name of the prophetess who founded both Prague and the Czech royal house); it is rarely performed in the Czech lands and obscure outside them. Instead, to both the Czechs and the rest of the world, the national opera is Smetana’s light, merry Prodaná Nevěsta, to the English-speaking world (for it is seldom given in Czech here) The Bartered Bride. In this guise it has long been in the category of occasional revivals, the overture almost too familiar (orchestras love it for the rhythmic workout it gives the strings: it’s a charming showoff piece). The Met and Juilliard chose it for the first of what one hopes will become a tradition of collaborations between the Met’s Lindemann Young Artists and the Juilliard opera program in their nifty little opera theater, the Peter J. Sharp. The omens look good.

One did wonder, though, at the performance, what Smetana’s charming folk opera was doing in a Central European café in doom-laden 1938? Was some ideological point intended? Or (one sneered) was it just that they couldn’t afford costumes of the proper era? A program note by director Stephen Wadsworth cleared things up: No, they couldn’t afford a full stage of fancy peasant costumes. He gets applause from me for not trying to make some political point of this, and for clear storytelling though, as usual with Wadsworth, it’s a bit fussy. Something is always going on, people are always dancing outside the window when the action should focus on one character’s solo distress. All the performers were expected to insert bits of folk-dance into their arias, just to ground us in Czech-ness, which they did with varying skill—but being able to dance credibly while they sing is part of the skill-set evidently being taught the Lindemann Young Artists at the Met. But I still can’t believe parents in Central Europe in 1938 would dare to arrange a marriage for their daughter without consulting her any more than they would today.

Opera translations into English come in at least four varieties: Risible, unendurable, irritating and inaudible. Inaudible—ENO’s Wagner, for example—is my favorite. Sandy McClatchy’s new version of Bartered Bride (an opera I have never heard sung in Czech) was mildly irritating: lots of false rhymes and false accents (the heroine’s name, at least, should fall with the proper emphasis), but many of those attending seemed to enjoy it and it was so clearly sung that surtitles should not have been necessary. The stuttering Vašek got laughs from those who find disabilities hilarious. (In Smetana’s day, no doubt, that was a larger group.)

5148Bride_0377c.pngJennifer Johnson Cano as Ludmila, Layla Claire as Mařenka, Donovan Singletary as Krusina, and Jordan Bisch as Kecal

Among the singers, slim, red-haired Layla Claire made the biggest impression as Mařenka, the bartered bride. She is a talented, affecting actress, both flirting and sorrowing, and her voice has a Central European sort of vibrato and a winning, plangent smoothness and rose on occasion to an opulent high C. Too, she worked her irritations out in dance steps that seemed unusually well integrated into her character. Paul Appleby, as her Jeník, displayed the several colors of his attractive tenor well, though he was unattractively costumed and obliged to use precious breath dancing with rage. Alexander Lewis had the part of Vašek, Jeník’s stuttering half-brother, and his well-supported light, high tenor made a nice contrast between the suitors; he also dances winningly and acts ably: a comic scene-stealer. I see Rossini and Donizetti leading roles in his future. Jordan Bisch was also an audience favorite in the buffo role of the pompous marriage broker, Kecal. His perfect diction and command of blowhard nuance (Kecal thinks he’s smarter than anybody, even when he loses the barter of the title) were as enduring as his rounded low notes. Noah Baetge’s star turn as the Ringmaster of a convenient carnival invasion was not vocally impressive, but that was all right since his part is written to be upstaged by ridiculous circus acts—the bearded “lady” ballerina and the contortionist were particular crowd-pleasers. The four annoying parents who clutter the plot proved their worth when they joined distraught Mařenka for the quintet that was the evening’s vocal peak. James Levine conducted the Juilliard Opera Orchestra, and the thrilling, rushing string writing gave no problems and great delight.

John Yohalem