Greetings, meine Damen und Herren, I appear among you today to convey my Smetana hot takes, which were simply too spicy for social media to handle. Trust the Germans to make The Bartered Bride dark, right?
Smetan, Die verkaufte Braut (Prodaná nevěsta but in the German translation by Max Kalbeck). Bayerische Staatsoper, 3 January 2019. New production conducted by Tomáš Hanus, directed by David Bösch, sets by Patrick Bannwart, costumes by Falko Herold, lights by Michael Bauer. Cast included Selene Zanetti (Marie [Mařenka]), Pavol Breslik (Hans [Jeník]), Günther Groissböck (Kezal [Kecal]), Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke (Wenzel [Vašek])https://www.staatsoper.de/media/content/PDFs/Besetzungszettel_18-19/2019_01_03_VerkaufteBraut.pdf
Actually, that’s not quite right. David Bösch’s new production, at the Bayerische Staatsoper, isn’t really dark, it just looks dark. If it had actually been thematically dark, it might have worked better for me. This was a nicely sung and acted performance that basically ticked the boxes of plot, setting, and what you expect out of a David Bösch production without ever being surprising or having a point, exactly.
I generally like Bösch and his usual collaborators’ work, but I admit that they can be predictable. Their aesthetic is post-apocalyptic kindergarten steampunk, which worked beautifully on Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder (at the Burgtheater) and L’Orfeo (also at the Bay Staats). The latter was one of the saddest things you could imagine, there can be something poignant about lonely characters wandering through Bösch and designer Patrick Bannwart’s dark, mysterious stage with its churning fog, rusted-out vans, and twinkling Christmas lights. Well, The Bartered Bride has two vintage vehicles—Hans gets a tractor plus the inevitable circusmobile—so that must make it twice as good? (This is in German, so Hans would be Jeník to you Originalsprache partisans, also fun fact for musicologists the translation is an old one by, surprise surprise, Brahms biographer Max Kalbeck.)
The look here is Bösch’s usual, a dark landscape dominated by a giant haystack and some cheesy beer signs. But Bösch takes a more clearly comic tone than usual, most prominently in the central placement and characterization of Kezal the marriage broker (who apparently also sells insurance). We open with his commercial, which touts his previous successful partnerships as Charles and Diana, the Obamas, Jonas K. and Anja H. in the Bay Staats production of Otello, and Snow White and all seven Dwarves. Kezal is sung by perennial avatar of toxic operatic masculinity Günther Groissböck, looking like a minor character in a Tarantino film from the 90s and a smooth operator among all these bumpkins, but there isn’t a whole lot of real threat this time around.
In fact, this staging is a bit of a grab bag: some light Brecht here (mostly to do with greeting the prompter), some pee jokes there (way too many, IMO, men should get over themselves and their pee), selfies, agricultural humor, beer, kegs of beer, kegs of beer pulled by tractors (to be fair, this is Bavaria), an unrealistically clean and quite large onstage pig named Willi, some tightrope walking (from the opera house that brought us Turandot on Ice With 3D Glasses I would expect no less), and more whimsical stuff, like Wes Anderson after a week long flea market bender. What seems to be missing is a strong central idea, image, or concept. Marie is given quite a strong characterization (memorably driving over a wedding dress in a tractor) but this doesn’t quite mesh with the characterization of Hans? The program book makes the expected gestures toward capitalism and personal relationships, but that’s not really realized in the production. Remember hat the title doesn’t actually mean bartered but rather sold, we just like alliteration in English, she is not swapped but rather mock-valued in cold, hard cash.
Honestly I think the team had something of an uphill climb here, because I have to admit I don’t love this opera too much. At its best it has charm, but the story moves very slowly, there are more plot holes than there are in Placido Domingo’s middle voice (why doesn’t Hans just tell Marenka/Marie his plan before he carries it out?!?!?), and the big twist can be seen from space. Tomáš Hanus conducted like he had a train to catch and while the overture is kind of exciting when played that fast I don’t think I need that much tension in my life. The orchestra is truly excellent but it does not seem necessary or productive. The fast pace, like the production clutter, has the tendency to obscures the piece’s more personal and small-scale charms. Or if you’re going to go for dark interpersonal drama, then you have to go much further than this and focus more on the main characters. Here they seem like sweet kids in love but…. we don’t get a lot more than that? This chaos reminds me of some Met productions, like their current L’elisir d’amore, but of course with a very different aesthetic.
One reason I think this comes across as a little toothless is that it does make a good, responsible effort with the opera’s trickiest character, Wenzel (né Vašek) who is written with and usually described as having a stutter but also pretty clearly intellectually disabled. Heroine Marie’s manipulation of him is not her most glorious moment. Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke, leading around aforementioned large pig Willi, gave a rather subtle and sensitive performance as Wenzel, particularly the delight he takes in the very innocent circus (this has to be the most wholesome circus that Regietheater.has ever birthed). The production is careful not to laugh at him. But this does exacerbate the plot’s essential lack of conflict.
Tellingly I haven’t actually gotten to the lead characters yet, which is unfair because the cast does have a lot of appeal. Puppy-like tenor Pavel Breslik seems like he really should be singing this in Czech (he’s Slovakian) but his German is fine and he has a sweet and direct way with this music. His voice seems to be getting darker around the middle though he is still very much a light lyric tenor. Newcomer soprano Selene Zanetti was a late replacement for the pregnant Christiane Karg. She’s got a big and dark lyric soprano that sounds more like Verdi and Puccini than anything, but she’s a real discovery, with a gorgeous sound, good technique and musicality (beautiful floating high notes) and naturally spunky and sympathetic stage presence which is a pleasure to see in any piece.
As her mother, Helena Zubanovich sounded great and made a real character of what is usually a throwaway role. As Esmeralda of the circus, Anna El-Khashem sounds like she has a future. All in all, a well-realized production with a good cast which kind of lacked a dramatic point. Oh well.
The Bartered Bride streams on the internet today, January 6. Photos copyright Wilfred Hösl.
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