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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2016 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Opera Review: Cashing the Czech

The Bartered Bride Marries Met and Juilliard.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Layla Claire and Alexander Lewis in Act II of The Bartered Bride.
Photo © 2011 The Juilliard School/Metropolitan Opera
The Metropolitan Opera's new collaboration with the Juilliard School got off to a winning start with Stephen Wadsworth's production of The Bartered Bride, seen Thursday night at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater. The Czech opera was performed in a new English translation by J. D. McClatchy, and incorporated 20th century references into the libretto.

Bedrich Smetana's comedy of small-town romance and arranged marriages has been away from New York stages for the last 15 years. This thrilling performance, conducted by James Levine made this writer wonder why we've had to wait so long. Maestro Levine led an enthusiastic reading that brought out the charm, laughter and joy in this underrated score. And he was a little caught up in it: the Met's music director was heard merrily singing along with the score.


He was helped by a fine young cast, led by soprano Layla Claire as Marenka, the bride-to-be who finds herself at the eye of a romantic hurricane when her planned marriage to Jenik is thrown over in favor of an arranged match with the son of Mischa, a rich farmer to whom her father owes money.

This is a complex, multi-dimensional role with a high tessitura and a number of rapid-fire emotional changes that can challenge any singing actress. Ms. Claire mined the rich comic vein of the score but also generated pathos, particularly in the heartbreaking spotlight aria that serves as the (serious) climax to the final act.

Marenka is deeply in love with Jenik, (tenor Paul Appleby), who manipulates events throughout the opera to produce a happy result. Mr. Appleby brought a brash attitude to the part and a pleasing tenor with light baritonal coloring. His performance took wing in his rapid-fire "contract duet" with the marriage broker Kecal, played with great comic gusto by bass Jordan Bisch.

Jenik's competition is Vacal, the most challenging part in this opera. Smetana was a fearless innovator, and he created what might be the only tenor role to be hampered by a musical stutter. As played by Alexander Lewis, Vacal's handicap became a source of charm, and the opera's most uplifting moment comes when the singer overcomes his alalia syllabaris and sings out. When he starts dancing in the third act, it is a moment of real joy.

Mr. Wadsworth's staging moved the action to a chic Czech café, sometime in the 20th century. The choristers slowly change from street garb to traditional kroje costumes. When a "real Czechoslovakian" circus hits the sleepy little town in the third act, the whole production takes a welcome turn for the surreal, complete with dancing bears, a bearded lady (dancer Miles Mykkanen, on point, like a ballerina) and a remarkable contortionist (Jacob Stainback).

This thrilling revival of one of the greatest operatic comedies of the 19th century plays for only one more performancer, but fear not, opera lovers, it's slated for the Met--sometime in 2014.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.