Tuesday, 8 January 2019

Smetana - The Bartered Bride (Munich, 2019)

Bedřich Smetana - The Bartered Bride

Bayerische Staatsoper, 2019

Tomáš Hanus, David Bösch, Selene Zanetti, Pavol Breslik, Günther Groissböck, Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke, Oliver Zwarg, Helena Zubanovich, Kristof Klorek, Irmgard Vilsmaier, Ulrich Reß, Anna El-Khashem, Ogulcan Yilmaz

Staatsoper.TV - 6 January 2019

Like the few great comic operas that endure across the years, the principal strength of The Bartered Bride is not sophisticated satire or even its comic content, since few opera comedies 'translate' well over time. Like Mozart for example, the comic potential of Smetana's most successful opera lies in its recognition of essential human qualities and in the ability of new performers to continually renew and breathe life into the work. Of course there's another essential element that contributes to the work's success and longevity and that's Smetana's glorious music. Musical and singing performances are well catered for in the new Munich production and under David Bösch's direction it succeeds to a large degree in keeping the whole thing lively and entertaining, and you can't ask for more from a light comic opera than that.

I was unsure however that there would be anything to gain or any subtle commentary to be made from Bösch's decision to switch The Bartered Bride's setting of a bucolic idyll of a Czech country village for a dung heap. That said, there's not much idealisation of life in the countryside in the opera, the villagers resigned from the opening song to the fact that there's no room for sentiments of love when the realities of money are far more important. Wedding and woe go hand in hand unless it's properly managed and love makes fools of those who enter into it without proper consideration for such necessities.

That doesn't leave much hope for the romance between Marie and Hans. Marie's parents Kruschina and Kathinka have called upon the marriage-broker Kezal to formalise the arrangements that have been agreed long ago to advantageously marry Marie to one of the sons of Tobias Micha. Since one of them has disappeared and is believed to be dead (hmmm, I wonder where he might have gone...), that means that Marie is going to be married to Wenzel. It's going to take some quick thinking and scheming on the part of Marie not just to outwit Kezal but also manufacture a circumstance where her marriage to Hans might be acceptable. To Marie's surprise however, Hans seems to have allowed himself to be bought off, signing a contract that makes Marie the bartered bride of "one of the sons of Tobias Micha" (hmmm...).

The Bartered Bride is a simple enough story with a fairly obvious plot twist, but it's the strength of the sentiments of Hans and Marie (and Smetana's scoring of such) that give the work its irrepressible human character. The two lovers are under no illusions or romantic ideals about their situation; they just know that they were meant for each other and are confident enough to believe that they won't be separated by any circumstance arranged by their parents and that they will work something out. It's not so much a case of love conquers all as a battle of cleverness and wit.

Of course the obstacles that have to be overcome have to be serious enough as to make it seem insurmountable, and money is always a familiar reality, even if arranged marriage isn't as much a universal problem. What is of course most important and most successful about how Smetana deals with the subject in The Bartered Bride is that the forces of ideal and reality, or love and opposition are embodied in the characters and in the musical character of the piece. The situation itself is not inherently funny, and how it plays out is merely amusing, but it comes alive in the playing, in its characters, in how they are interpreted and in how the music brings vibrancy and life to it all.

Marie and Hans are the romantic characters, so the majority of the comic potential lies with the marriage facilitator Kezal and in how the lovers seek to outwit him. David Bösch emphasises the disparity between Kezal's flamboyantly over-dressed, bare-chested, arm-wrestling activities and the dung heap village that he has visited, and Günther Groissböck plays it up terrifically, his looming overbearing presence dominating the stage whenever he is on it. For their part, Selene Zanetti and Pavol Breslik have to play the part not just of simple country people with romantic ideas, but show the sincerity of their feeling in the lovely arias that Smetana writes for them, showing the underlying human qualities that are essential to the character of the work. Both are simply outstanding for technical delivery, sweetness of timbre (with a steely determination underpinning it) and for the deftness of the comic playfulness in the delivery elsewhere.

Patrick Bannwart's dung-heap set proves versatile enough to introduce other elements of visual comedy and extravagance such as a tractor that Marie drives over a wedding dress, some live pigs, a beer festival and the requirement to set up a site for the travelling circus in Act III. Another little running visual joke where the prompter - the box buried in a smaller dung pile - is invited to take part in the entertainment provides another light amusing touch that works well. Aside from the circus, where Bösch does his own thing but still provides spectacle and amusement, all of this fits well with the rich folk-influenced dances, choruses played with verve and dynamism under the musical direction of Tomáš Hanus. Plenty of spectacle and light humour, with wonderful music and lovely singing, you really can't ask for more from The Bartered Bride.

Links: Bayerische Staatsoper, Staatsoper.TV