Opera Review: ‘The Bartered Bride’

By Caldwell Titcomb

In “The Bartered Bride,” Jennifer Aylmer plays Marenka, who loves the farmhand Jenik, but is pressured to marry Vasek, the son of a wealthy neighbor.

Boston has had the unusual luck of experiencing two major Czech operas within a few weeks. First, the Boston Lyric Opera gave us Antonin Dvořák’s “Rusalka” (see March 27 review), and then this month Opera Boston presented “The Bartered Bride” by Bedřich Smetana (1824-84), generally regarded as the father of Czech music. Besides this opera, he is best known for his symphonic poem “The Moldau” (1874) and the superb autobiographical E-minor string quartet (1876).

“The Bartered Bride” was the second of his eight completed operas. Its first version, with spoken dialogue, was written in 1863-66, and went through several revisions before reaching its final form in 1870, with the speech replaced by sung recitative.

Smetana’s score is delectable from its very first notes. No opera in history has had a more fizzy and effervescent overture than this one. Understandably, the overture and ensuing dances have had a constant life in concerts outside the opera house.

The charming story centers on Marenka and farmhand Jenik, who are in love, but encounter her father’s insistence that she marry Vasek, the son of a wealthy neighbor. The marriage broker Kecal is intent on carrying out the father’s plan by paying Jenik off with a substantial amount of money. There are various complications, but the surprise revelation of one of the characters’ paternity leads to a suitably happy conclusion.

Marenka (Jennifer Aylmer) and Jenik (Patrick Miller) share a tender moment in “The Bartered Bride.’”

As Marenka, soprano Jennifer Aylmer displayed a large voice of appealing timbre, though her high notes tended to be slightly under pitch. Tenor Patrick Miller’s Jenik was adequate but not outstanding. Tenor Keith Jameson was the most entrancing of the cast as the stammering and not-too-bright Vasek. Bass James Maddalena had a lot of fun as the briefcase-laden Kecal, who talked a blue streak. In the third act, the mustachioed tenor Frank Kelley headed the touring circus troupe of a dozen colorfully clothed acrobats, who included the sexy Esmeralda (Sara Heaton).

This opera devotes considerable attention to the chorus of townsfolk (eighteen strong here), which contributed heartily to the proceedings. Three pairs of young dancers (courtesy of the Boston Conservatory) were most welcome at several points in the performance.

The director and choreographer of this production was Daniel Pelzig, who served a stint as resident choreographer of the Boston Ballet. Since he decided to present the work in English, he transferred the locale from Bohemia to Spillville, Iowa, which housed an emigrant Czech community (Dvorak lived there for a summer in 1893). And he moved the time up to 1934, shortly after the end of Prohibition, so that the environment of the activity was an enterprising brewery (a tip-of-the-hat to Smetana’s father, who was a successful brewer in Bohemia).

The production used the 1978 translation by British poet/playwright Tony Harrison. The text, mostly in rhyme, was projected as supertitles. Amusingly, at two points the chorus sang briefly in the original Czech, and the supertitles also appeared in Czech.

The 42-person orchestra was impeccably conducted by Gil Rose, who has been the company’s Music Director since 2003 – in addition to his quite different role as founding conductor of the new-music-centered Boston Modern Orchestra Project. We are lucky to have him working so committedly among us.

Opera Boston has announced its offerings for the 2009-10 season. After Rossini’s “Tancredi” (1813) comes the world premiere of Zhou Long’s “Madame White Snake.” And the season will end with Offenbach’s “La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein” (1867). All three will be conducted by Rose.


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