When it comes to light entertainment in the opera house, Bedrich Smetana's The Bartered Bride delivers it as engagingly and tunefully as any other comedy in the repertoire. For a winning demonstration of that quality, check out the Baltimore Opera Company's first-ever production of this Czech charmer.
Just about everything came together neatly for the opening performance Saturday night at the Lyric Opera House.
The cast, given an idiomatic boost from Czech artists in two key roles and directed breezily by James McNamara, made a smooth ensemble effort and, by and large, sang in bright, confident style. Above all, a seasoned Czech conductor, Oliver von Dohnanyi, was at the helm to assure rhythmic snap and fine expressive detailing.
The presence of Dohnanyi, music director of the Prague National Theatre, paid dividends at every turn. The overture and dance numbers in each act, long familiar as concert items, took on added urgency and character in context here. All evening, he drew out the distinctive flavors of Smetana's vibrant score while also tapping tellingly into the tender lyricism that gives the opera its heart.
Driving the plot of The Bartered Bride is a case of old-fashioned marriage-brokering. That business transaction leads to nearly thwarted love, while also drawing attention to various family and village values. But the mood is never dampened for long, not with dances always breaking out and a circus popping in.
All of this unfolded seamlessly on Rheinhard Heinrich's set, which is more about function than atmosphere. The pastel plainness of his scenic and costume designs intensified the contrast from the last act's circus razzle-dazzle.
There was nothing plain about the singing of soprano Dana Buresova. This veteran of the Prague National Theatre is a natural as Marenka, the peasant woman in love with the slightly mysterious Jenik. She produced a big, intense, slightly metallic, remarkably communicative tone that heated up Smetana's melodic lines to compelling effect. Had Buresova offered some soft high notes along the way, the results would have been even more eloquent.
Valentin Prolat, also from the National Theatre, likewise lacked a low volume, but the tenor's virile sound, animated phrasing and persuasive acting made him a winning Jenik. As the stuttering, not-too-bright, hapless Vasek, Marenka's would-be groom, tenor Doug Jones created an endearing characterization. He also sang with a good deal of color.
Gregory Frank superbly fit the role of Kecal, the smarmy matchmaker. His beefy, technically secure bass and supple phrasing added up to a portrayal as amusing as it was commanding. Alexander Savtchenko (as Jenik's father) and Timothy Mix (as Marenka's father) also did strong work. Same for Luke Grooms (the Ringmaster). The rest of the soloists proved vocally uneven, but the chorus, prepared by James Harp, gave a spirited, firmly blended performance.
McNamara's directorial touches were mostly effective, particularly bits of stage business tightly timed to the music. But why so many visual distractions during Vasek's arias? Even more distracting was the circus troupe making a sudden entrance during the closing measures of the overture (their mimed shtick could have worked just as well afterward).
When the circus folks made their real entrance later, they turned out to be Americans who delivered their lines in English, in one case with a vintage Baltimore accent. I found it a little forced, but having the supertitles switch to Czech at that point was certainly good for a laugh. The actual circus acts, involving assorted extras (and a dog) unfolded more or less smoothly. Same for Kimberly Mackin's choreography, executed throughout the opera by guest dancers and cast members.
A few technical bumps aside, the orchestra responded with considerable warmth and vitality to Dohnanyi's authoritative, classy conducting.
"The Bartered Bride" will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, 8:15 p.m. Friday and 3 p.m. April 1 at the Lyric Opera House, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave. Tickets are $45 to $122. Call 410-727-6000 or go to baltimoreopera.com.