Few operas need more understanding of a country’s struggles for national identity than The Bartered Bride.
Bohemia-born Smetana’s popular and lasting work seems little more than a village comedy with a circus troupe, a mildly engaging farce of mistaken identity and a conniving local dignitary humbled.
A corrupt mayor, a lovelorn country boy, a nasty landowner, compromised parents forced to barter a daughter into an arranged marriage to pay off debts, classic stage peasants drink and frolic...
None of these would have been clichés in 1866 when first performed, but Opera North’s decision to move the drama to 1968 and the Prague Spring gives familiar characterisations a sinister undercurrent.
The lightness – Smetana, who became the chief musical bard of the Czech National Revival, previously produced a more serious examination of centuries of denied nationalism which has not gained similar renown – is deceiving.
It touched a nerve, perhaps because of its localism. That said the bucolic nature of the drama does leave a lasting impression.
The score is marked by repetition, and the sense of a drama restrained by potential censorial disapproval leaves a tinge of frustration.
James Creswell as dodgy mayor Kecal has the most to work with, and thrives. He floats emotionally untroubled through the devastation he is wreaking on the lives of all around with a swagger which makes his downfall in the final act all the more deserved.
Kate Valentine as the centre of the circulating love interests Marenka is both alluring and vulnerable.
Jennifer France as circus ballerina Esmeralda sweeps in and almost tips up the village apple cart – as Esmeraldas should. Sets, costumes and performances are high quality throughout.
The two other productions in Opera North’s autumn visit across the Pennines are Verdi’s La Traviata on Friday and The Coronation of Poppea by Monteverdi on Saturday.