No one could accuse Bedrich Smetana of lacking in ambition: disappointed that Czechoslovakia (as it was then) rarely appeared on the cultural map of central Europe, he declared, “No other than I should beget a native Czech music”, combining operatic traditions with folk music. The Bartered Bride was his second opera in 1866, but didn’t become a repertoire favourite until its premiere in Vienna, the epicentre of classical music, in 1892. Inspired by Czech folktales, this romantic comedy of star-crossed lovers could be considered a political statement of sorts, with young people defying their elders and choosing their own paths – all of which are promising ingredients for a young company.
Receiving its first outing from British Youth Opera as part of their 25th anniversary season (using Kit Hesketh-Harvey’s English version), Rodmula Gaitnou’s production moves the action to a saloon bar in the conservative Midwestern setting of Prague, Oklahoma (a real town that unsurprisingly was founded by Czech immigrants) in the 1950s, featuring an aesthetic that’s a cross between Grease and Crazy for You. It might feel more effective if it featured a more attractive design than the one provided by Cordelia Chisholm – the way the light falls on the metallic fringing material that separates the front of the stage and the saloon area behind becomes rather distracting.
The twist in the story couldn’t be more clearly signposted; Gilbert and Sullivan are subtle in comparison. Marenka loves Jenik but is betrothed to the village idiot Vasek, whose father promises to pay off her impoverished parents’ debts if she marries him. It doesn’t feel comfortable being invited to laugh at a character’s stutter and there’s something lecherous about Samuel Furness’s Vasek that’s at odds with the way in which he’s described in the libretto as an innocent. The broadly comic and slightly surreal third act is a neat summary of the entire production, featuring a parade of circus acts in which each one is more inept than the last.
Katherine Crompton sings with a bright soprano and makes Marenka an earthy and headstrong heroine who should have no trouble managing the rather arrogant Jenik (Luis Gomes). Katie Connor creates a well-rounded character in the small role of Marenka’s mother, sympathising with her daughter’s plight but alert to the material realities, and Jennifer France has a winsome twinkle in her eye as circus floozy Esmeralda. The show, however, belongs to the booming bass Matthew Stiff as marriage broker Kecal. With an excellent flair for the patter sections, this opportunist is part Uncle Sam and part sleazy aspiring politician. Diction is excellent all-round (imperative when there are no surtitles).
Smetana’s infectiously cheerful score works well with a strong dance element and the choreography (by Mandy Demetriou) sets elements of square dancing and rock and roll to the polka rhythms. Despite these clever touches, however, it’s difficult to fully warm to the American location. The Bartered Bride is one of the most quintessentially European of operas (and one that isn’t performed very often in Britain), and it’s difficult not to feel that a more authentic setting would serve it better.
The Bartered Bride plays at the Peacock Theatre on 11 and 14 September 2012 (cover performance 15 September). For more information and tickets, visit the website.