Music: Bedřich Smetana
Libretto: Karel Sabina, English translation by Leonard Hancock and David Pountney with dialogue by Daniel Slater
Director: Daniel Slater
Conductor: Anthony Kraus
Reviewer: Rich Jevons
Right from the intro of Bedřich Smetana’s beautiful overture against a screen of graffiti-ridden notices for a Czech national holiday, we know we are in for a full-blown romantic comedy with a lightness of mood that belies its more serious message on the meaning of true love in a time of Communist Party expediencies.
When Robert Innes Hopkins’ impressive set is revealed, we are treated to a huge blue sky atop a typical folk village scene in Bohemia. The rural charm is emphasised in the costumes too and the cheeky libretto immediately lets rip with the farcical elements of the piece. This is done by changing the words to a particularly inane Party anthem, a wonderful piece of mischief that brings out the first of the cheerful chuckles that are brought out from us throughout both acts.
When the chorus have dispersed we are left with the two lovers, Mařenka and Jeník, played by Kate Valentine and Brenden Gunnell, who both excel at their depiction of a love potentially torn apart by the ways of the day (taken as the 1970’s, the Brezhnev era). Jeník, when questioned by his sweetheart, begins to explain his somewhat mysterious background, being practically orphaned.
But it isn’t long before the bossy mayor, James Creswell in a magnificent performance as Kecal, starts off on his cunning plan to wipe out Mařenka’s father’s debt by marrying her off to his debtor’s son. Particular mention should be made of Nicholas Watts as Vašek, the potential groom, who stammers through his lines and is a figure of fun throughout, especially when he dons a suitably ridiculous bear outfit!
While the first act is pretty fluffy stuff anyway, if we did need some light relief to take off the blues of the lovers’ angst we get it full-scale with fabulously choreographed circus scene (Tim Claydon after Vanessa Gray). A minor criticism would be that we don’t really have time to take in Mařenka’s despondency in her aria, a reflection more of the piece itself rather than the production.
No spoilers here, but you won’t be disappointed with the emotional finale and certainly on Press Night the entire audience applauded veraciously, having been spellbound for nearly two and a half hours. If you are new to opera, or have a friend that fancies dipping their toes in the vast operatic sea, this is the show for you. truly endearing, funny, colourful and overall really quite hopeful, Opera North are triumphant once more.
Performance dates: 25, 29 and 31 October, then touring.
Photo Credit: Robert Workman