The Bartered Bride

ARTS, Theatre & Performing Arts

By Bedrich Smetana; presented by NBR New Zealand Opera
Directed by Daniel Slater; Conducted by Oliver von Dohnanyi
St James Theatre, Wellington | October 13-20

The New Zealand Opera have done it again; The Bartered Bride, Smetana’s comic score of love and fidelity, is a resounding success. Translated from the original Czech to English, this production is saturated in lively colour, brilliant orchestration, and a venerable show case of New Zealand’s finest singing talent (with a couple of internationals to add to the fun).

There is plenty to like, and more to love, in this engaging production. But first, synopsis: Ma?enka (Anna Leese) and Jeník (Peter Wedd) are eager to get hitched. Unfortunately, Ma?enka has been sold to Tobias Micha (Richard Green)—to whom her father (John Antoniou) owes a substantial amount of dosh—and is therefore destined to wed Vašek (Andrew Glover), Micha’s son. The Mayor, Kecal (Conal Coad), is the marriage broker; meanwhile, a circus is in town.

Havoc and humour ensues.

The stage is set with a large elevated dais on which the township make merry with song and dance, booze and laughter. It is liberation day (an irony given Ma?enka’s struggle, whilst “libation” alludes to the pouring of drink-offerings: Ma?enka’s tears, free-flowing beer, Czech blood), a nationalist public holiday, so bunting and party lights abound. The opening choral sequence, a hilarious exposition on the lost joys of youth and the trials of marriage, quickly establishes the setting as a village undergoing a cultural transformation: rural folk in dungarees and head scarves contrast with flared pants and mullet wigs, folk dances compete with disco jives, much to the delight of the audience. In this arena, their bright blue C.S.R. blazers seem garishly out of place and institutionalised.

Each lead character is performed with verve and delight, and this very domestic narrative is translated to epic proportion without losing any of its potency or tenderness. When the achingly vulnerable Vašek is accosted by a wily Ma?enka, the tension is so prickly I sit on the edge of my seat.

The circus is complete with acrobats and impressive gymnastic feats, representing a microcosm of the whole show. The ring leader impresses the village with bawdy puns and a tempting pre-show, but what seems an overt display of theatrical hilarity garners macabre overtones: the clowns are controlled by suited mechanic puppeteers, the ring leader becomes increasingly disoriented, and Esmeralda is Ma?enka’s substitute as the bound woman (literally), with whom Vašek subsequently falls in love. The similarities between the ringleader and the financially driven Kecal are easily recognisable, perhaps best described once he ropes Vašek into the bear’s role after their performer has passed out in a drunken stupor; ever the opportunist.

My only misgiving about the production is the association with the Prague Spring (roughly a century after the initial context for the action). I must confess to possess rudimentary knowledge in this field, but my initial reaction is, whilst the concept left a strong visual impression, I cannot lend it any especial significance beyond a design stimulus. This is not a bad thing, per se, but if you are looking for historical specificity, you’re probably going to come away a trifle disappointed.

This is a marvellous time out for all involved, and I have already begun to recommend it to anyone who comes my way. Too often we stigmatise opera as out of touch, archaic, and grandiose. This production overcomes any fears one may have, and returns to the fundamental of every good show: a well told story.