Smetana (The) Bartered Bride
Nicely timed to coincide with the 10th anniversary of Sir Peter Moore’s ‘Opera in English’ series comes this outstanding new version of The Bartered Bride. By almost any reckoning, this is the most popular of Czech operas, in the repertory of almost every opera house, so it is astonishing how few recordings have appeared in recent years; Kosler’s Supraphon set of 1981 is the only other digital recording. That well cast version is in the original Czech; this one comes in a crisp translation by Kit Hesketh-Harvey of cabaret duo Kit and the Widow. Hesketh-Harvey, sporting a cheeky cockney accent, also takes the tiny role of the Indian in the Act 3 Circus scene.
What makes this version so successful? The brilliant conducting of Sir Charles Mackerras, of course – 80 next month, he goes from strength to strength – plus the scintillating playing of the Philharmonia; an exceptionally strong team of soloists, too. But it’s the extra impact of having the comedy delivered in the vernacular that makes this stand out. Echoes of Gilbert and Sullivan can often be distracting when Donizetti or early Verdi are sung in English, but no so here.
Kecal, the marriage-broker, for example, has many patter numbers, and Peter Rose is agile and crystal clear, establishing himself as the key character in the story. Hesketh-Harvey gives the chorus some rapid tongue-twisters to cope with: the Covent Garden Chorus does so admirably.
The sparkling mood is set at the start, with Mackerras taking the Overture at headlong speed and the Philharmonia strings respond- ing with perfect clarity and precision, vividly caught in the warm, clear, well balanced Chandos recording. The chorus reinforces the mood, and the duet between the heroine Marenka and her beloved Jeník instantly has you involved in the complicated story.
Susan Gritton is radiant, producing golden tone and rising superbly to the challenge of the poignant numbers when it seems that Jeník has betrayed her. Paul Charles Clarke as her suitor is less successful: the voice becomes strangulated and uneven under pressure though the characterisation is first-rate. Timothy Robinson as the stuttering simpleton Vasek and Robin Leggate as the Circus Master are superb. Peter Rose as Kecal is wonderfully fluent, matched by the excellent Esmeralda of Yvette Bonner, both defying the tradition of having actors in the roles of the circus artists. Strong casting, too, means the two sets of parents make a considerable impact.
Above all, thanks are due to Mackerras for the emotional warmth as well as highlighting the colour and energy of Smetana’s master-piece. This counts among the finest of the ‘Opera in English’ series.