The first two new productions in Garsington Opera’s 30th anniversary season both feature wild parties with lots of on-stage dancing. Smetana’s The Bartered Bride somehow combines1950s dancing, from the era when partners gestured at each other separately (and sexily, we innocently thought then), more often than they actually held one another, with Czech folk-dance. But it’s the title, not the Twist, that gives me trouble. The alliteration in the English title of The Bartered Bride is so catchy that you can see why Prodaná nevesta, or Die verkaufte Braut, as its more or less non-Czech-speaking composer, Bedřich Smetana, referred to it, wasn’t too concerned. Still, the “bartered” heroine, Mařenka, would be better described as “the paid-for bride” or “bride for sale,” rather than a girl who was swapped for some valuable, tangible goods. The opera is sung in Czech in the wonderful new Garsington Opera production directed by Paul Curran and designed by Kevin Knight; so we have to be grateful that the programme includes a note on the pronunciation of Czech. As Smetana wrote in a letter of 1860 (quoted in the programme): “Having been educated in German going back almost to my early childhood…I have to confess to my disgrace that I cannot express myself or write properly in the Czech language.”
The “ř” in Mařenka and in Bedřich, is pronounced as “zh as in measure,” which explains why the printed characters look so odd to English speakers, though they were no bother to the librettist, Karel Sabina. I applaud the decision to sing the piece in Czech, though Smetana himself might not have understood every word being sung, as the libretto seems to repeat every line at least five times, and hearing them in Czech is not only euphonious, but reduces the hearers’ chances of boredom considerably, making us more tolerant of the wafer-thin plot. It is not only text that is repeated in this three-act comic opera; it also seems to have Wagnerian leitmotifs, with musical phrases associated with the dramatis personae. At least, I think I could hear these musical repetitions, and I was paying attention.
The Bartered Bride is a rollicking comedy that turns upon a single premise to do with the revelation of the groom’s identity and the marriage contract that turns upon it, proving that it’s the wise son who know his own father. Thus the vocal part seems to occupy little more than half the work’s length – the remainder being the well-known overture and the other orchestral parts in which the chorus sings a little, but dances a lot, and accompanies the superb circus performances we witnessed at Garsington, featuring everything from juggling and unicycles to gymnastic feats and multiple hula hoops. Darren Royston’s choreography has to be performed by as many as two dozen members of the chorus, and, of course, not all of them can polka to Olympic standard. However, the goofiness of it all, combined with 1950s provincial British costumes, won my heart and loud applause.
Paul Curran moves his large troupe riotously yet daintily across, and up and down, the large stage. Even the scene changes were entertaining, as the cast moved huge sets on castors, changing the 1st Act village hall with its stage and kitchen into the village pub, complete with bar, tables, and separate glass doors for the Ladies’ and Gents’ conveniences.
Musically this was the sort of great evening we locals expect from the Garsington Opera in its 30th anniversary year (following its founding at their home, Garsington Manor, by our own dear friends Leonard and Rosalind Ingrams, and its eighth year at Wormsley, and the Getty family’s generous 50-year renewal of the company’s lease). The Dutch conductor Jac van Steen had the crack Philharmonia Orchestra following his baton, along with the large Garsington Opera Chorus, and there wasn’t a single dud among the principals. Jenik (Brendel Gunnell) already has a few Wagner spinto tenor roles to his credit, and I expect we’ll hear him in some dramatic roles in the bigger houses. Mařenka (Natalya Romaniw) is described in the programme as Welsh, and works and lives in Texas. We have already heard her high-powered, lyrical soprano as Garsington’s Taytana, and she is a familiar name on opera cast lists all over the place. Joshua Bloom sings the role of the cynical Kecal, the village mayor, whose main activity is match-making, and his bass has a beautiful baritonal quality, despite the fact that he is a bit svelte for heavy-duty Schwerer Spielbass roles.
I, and the loudly cheering audience, hugely enjoyed Michael Boyd’s weird production of Don Giovanni, which designer Tom Piper has set in a “woke” artistic environment somewhere in southeast London (I’d guess). As clued by the programme’s still photograph of Ed Harris as Jackson Pollock in the 2000 film, it opens in an artist’s studio, the site of one hell of a party. The party-goers are dressed in contemporary clothes, with chic trainers on their feet, and some adorned with hipster beards.
In the scene above, Donna Elvira (the stunning Australian soprano, Sky Ingram), suitcase in hand, is crashing the party, in search of her faithless sposa. Earlier two artists (looking uncannily like Mark Rothko and his young assistant in the play, Red) heaved buckets of paint at an enormous blank canvas, stage right. Don Giovanni (a wicked-looking Jonathan McGovern) slashes the canvas à la Lucio Fontana, and oozes himself through it, as though it represents the female pudenda, but whether in the sexual act or childbirth, it’s impossible to say. This part of the set jarred with my art historian companions, who didn’t appreciate the apparent homage to 1950s artistic practice. However, in the middle of the stage are two, gold-framed, colossal Claude landscapes – and on stage left, an old-Masterish gilt-framed painting of (I’d guess) Amor and Venus. My expert companions hazarded a guess at Bronzino as its painter; but a happy hour of online research left me unable to confirm their attributtion. In any case, the painting is apparently there only to be vandalised, by a single brushstroke, making a blue blindfold across the face. I suppose the older paintings are meant to strike a note of contrast between the art of the past (including its music) and the moral, artistic and political chaos of the present.
It has crossed my mind that we’re meant to view the Don as the Donald, and the word “incoherent” applied to the production, certainly. But I sensed that the art-world atmosphere and studio shenanigans were meant chiefly to alter our sense of the time and place of the setting, and that the guests at the party might well have been the younger versions of ten or so of the current Tory would-be prime ministers jostling one another, and tattling tales about each other’s drug preferences. A fitting milieu for this take on the Mozart-Da Ponte masterpiece, in which the Don is updated to an Old Etonian, and Leporello his fag. Director Michael Boyd adds a muscular public school homoerotic note, as Don Giovanni not only beats his servant, but plants full-on kisses on Leporello’s not-entirely-happy-about-it mouth. In addition to the Don’s locker-room boasting (cue the other Donald) and class exploitation, Boyd’s direction adds the frisson of the Don’s sexually menacing his lackey. Bass baritone David Ireland is an exemplary Leporello, and I hope I get to hear his debut performance as Mozart’s Figaro with the Welsh National Opera.
I liked the way both men move on stage, and also the lanky strength of Thomas Faulkner’s Masetto. Movement director/choreographer Liz Ranken has made their body-language an impressive and expressive part of the drama—and she has done something similar in her coaching of the women. Camila Titinger’s Anna goes from hysterical to dignified (and her intonation improved as the night went on); Sky Ingram as Elvira is angry, really angry; and Mireille Asselin’s Zerlina is no wimp. Douglas Boyd conducts the Garsington Opera Orchestra with more legato than crispness, but as the performance developed, I began to like the long phrasing and roundness. The evening’s vocal honours, though, belonged to the tenor, Trystan Llŷr Griffiths, making his Garsington debut as Ottavio. He sang his character’s first aria with passion and sweetness, managing a thrilling ppp that hushed the audience but was heard everywhere in the house.