BEDŘRICH SMETANA (1824 – 1884): Prodaná nevěsta – Claire Griffin (Mařenka), William Edwards (Jeník), Reginald Powell (Kecal), Zachary Taylor (Vašek), Rafael Alejandro Garcia (Krušina), Danielle Lee Dorsett (Ludmila), Douglas Grimm (Mícha), Peyton Wheeler (Háta), Michael Adams (Esmeralda), Collin McCrea (Principal), Kyle Whitton (Indian); UNCG Opera Theatre Chorus and Orchestra; Peter Perret, conductor [David Holley, Producer and Stage Director; Michael Job, Choreographer; Jeff Neubauer, Lighting Designer and Technical Director; Feyden Jones, Wig and Makeup Designer; UNCG Opera Theatre, UNCG Auditorium, University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Greensboro, North Carolina, USA; Thursday, 31 March 2022]
Born near the boundary between Bohemia and Moravia during an era in which his native land was ruled by Habsburg Austria, Bedřich Smetana was an early champion of Czech nationalism in music, a figure whose endeavors to liberate his people from foreign domination paralleled those of the titular hero of his 1868 opera Dalibor. Fascinatingly, the circumstances of his time dictated that Smetana was seldom exposed to Czech language and traditions in his youth, the necessity of coexisting with Bohemia’s Austrian lords yielding a prevalence of Teutonic culture throughout the Habsburg realms. This early suppression of the cultural heritage of his homeland perhaps intensified Smetana’s commitment to developing a singular Czech identity in his music.
Grateful as any artist is for a work to receive widespread acclaim, Smetana would likely have been disappointed to observe that, in the quarter-century following his death in 1884, it was in German translation as Die verkaufte Braut that his second opera, Prodaná nevěsta, captivated audiences throughout Europe and North America. [More than a century after Prodaná nevěsta’s 1909 Metropolitan Opera première, in which Emmy Destinn portrayed Mařenka auf Deutsch, the opera has never been performed by the company in librettist Karel Sabina’s original Czech.] Nuances of Czech linguistics and culture are integral components of Prodaná nevěsta’s structure and ethos, but the opera’s success in other languages is indicative of the quality of Smetana’s music.
Sung in Marian Farquhar’s English translation, UNCG Opera Theatre’s staging of Prodaná nevěsta convincingly transformed the Gate City into a vibrant Czech village. Taking advantage of every visual stimulus of the Grosh Backdrops and Tobias Lake Studio scenic designs, as redolent of the Cotswolds as of Bohemia, and Eastern Costume Company’s costumes, producer and stage director David Holley extracted the plentiful charm from Smetana’s score without perpetuating the uncomfortable, unnecessary, and unwarranted stereotypes that have afflicted some productions of the opera. His own career as a singer always guiding his direction, Holley achieved a commendable balance between the opera’s humor and humanity, the comedy realized rousingly but sensitively.
Jeff Neubauer’s finely-judged lighting designs and technical direction ensured that the observer was always mindful, even in moments of greatest hilarity, that the future happiness of simple, good-natured people was imperiled. Rustic sophistication suffused Michael Job’s rejuvenation of choreography first devised for UNCG’s 2009 production of Prodaná nevěsta, depicting common folk at leisure whose lack of formal training is reflected in clever handling of the opera’s celebrated dances. Too many of today’s opera productions are undermined by staging elements that are contradictory rather than complementary, but this Bartered Bride was distinguished by a discernible unity of vision that focused on drawing the audience into the heart of Smetana’s lovingly-crafted paean to Bohemian life.
Village at play: the cast of UNCG Opera Theatre’s 2022 production of Bedřich Smetana’s Prodaná nevěsta
[Photograph © by UNCG Opera Theatre]
Music Director of the Winston-Salem Symphony from 1978 until 2004, renowned conductor Peter Perret returned to UNCG Auditorium three years after pacing UNCG Opera Theatre’s enchanting production of Verdi’s Falstaff to preside over this staging of Prodaná nevěsta. The artful command of orchestral detail, no less impressive in the orchestral reduction employed for this production than in Smetana’s full orchestrations, and coordination of comedic timing between podium and stage that served Verdi so well were also engendered an energetic, effervescent reading of Smetana’s score.
Under Perret’s leadership, the opera’s sparkling Overture, virtually a symphonic scherzo with much in common with Mozart’s Overture to Le nozze di Figaro, was brilliantly played by the production’s orchestra, and each subsequent instrumental number—the Act One Polka and the comedians’ March (a piece that must have been in Leoncavallo’s mind as he composed his music for the theatrical troupe’s entrance in Pagliacci) and Skočná in Act Three [the popular Furiant in Act Two was omitted]—benefited from the musicians’ dedication and increasing mastery of Smetana’s musical language. Surely responding both to Perret’s guidance and to the beauty of the composer’s music, each instrument was played with eloquence and virtuosity. Perret shaped the opera’s lyrical passages with suavity, engrossingly contrasting bucolic naïvety with dramatic tension.
Smetana entrusted much of the pageantry and authentic Bohemian spirit of Prodaná nevěsta to the chorus. Under the direction of conductor Garrett Saake, UNCG Opera Theatre’s choristers sang both their set pieces and the villagers’ lines in crowd scenes with irrepressible exuberance and musicality. Despite being outnumbered by the ladies, the gentlemen of the chorus provided a sturdy foundation in ensembles. Impeccably trained by Saake, all of the young singers immersed themselves in the story, persuasively portraying the villagers’ joy, distress, and curiosity. The considerable demands of Smetana’s writing for the chorus were blithesomely met, each voice credibly embodying an individual within the community.
Bearing with rejection: (from left to right) tenor Collin McCrea as Principál, tenor Zachary Taylor as Vašek, and soprano Michael Adams as Esmeralda in UNCG Opera Theatre’s 2022 production of Bedřich Smetana’s Prodaná nevěsta
[Photograph © by UNCG Opera Theatre]
Some of the evening’s finest singing was heard in Act Three, when, accompanying a traveling circus, soprano Michael Adams’s ebullient Esmeralda arrived in the village square. Adams’s voice was as radiant as her smile, her tones beautiful and effortlessly projected throughout the range. She was joined in the brief duet ‘Milostné zvířátko’ by the Principál, the ringmaster of the circus, sung by tenor Collin McCrea. Not wholly comfortable with his music’s tessitura, McCrea nonetheless delivered the part with brio. Baritone Kyle Witton depicted the third of the circus performers, sensibly identified in this production as a daredevil instead of Smetana’s and Sabina’s potentially offensive Indian, with physical and vocal athleticism.
As Micha, the father of the brothers who unwittingly become rivals for Mařenka’s hand in marriage, and his domineering second wife Háta, baritone Douglas Grimm and mezzo-soprano Peyton Wheeler sang and acted capably. Wheeler’s Háta was shrewish but not truly malevolent, her actions and strongly-voiced blandishments motivated by concern for her son Vašek—until his behavior prompted embarrassment, at any rate. Grimm’s handsome voice lent Micha’s utterances welcome immediacy. In his performance, the father’s blessing of both of his sons and their chosen partners was unexpectedly moving.
Mezzo-soprano Danielle Lee Dorsett and bass Rafael Alejando Garcia enlivened the performance in their every appearance on stage as Mařenka’s doting but crafty parents, Ludmila and Krušina. Both singers surrendered themselves to their rôles, imparting the shifting emotions of their subsequent scenes with Kecal and Mařenka.with subtlety and sincerity. Dorsett’s appealing vocalism alternated forceful tones at the top of the stave with soft-grained navigations of Ludmila’s lines in ensembles. His cane virtually a participant in the drama in its own right, Garcia’s Krušina was undeniably opportunistic but endearingly paternal, his words declaimed with an aura of a long-toiling father’s weariness.
Family matter: (from left to right) bass Rafael Alejando Garcia as Krušuna, soprano Claire Griffin as Mařenka, bass-baritone Reginald Powell as Kecal, and mezzo-soprano Danielle Lee Dorsett as Ludmila in UNCG Opera Theatre’s 2022 production of Bedřich Smetana’s Prodaná nevěsta
[Photograph © by UNCG Opera Theatre]
In tenor Zachary Taylor’s portrayal, Micha’s stuttering younger son Vašek was uncommonly sympathetic, the timid youth’s fears of rejection and alienation made all the more affecting by the focused, firm tones by which they were communicated. Taylor voiced Vašek’s Act Two aria ‘Má ma-ma Matička’ with boyish innocence, the stutter neatly articulated without being over-exaggerated. Encountering Mařenka without recognizing her as his contracted betrothed, this Vašek conversed with her sweetly in their animated duet, her warnings about his future bride’s inconstancy unnerving and exhilarating him in equal measures. The dulcet aria ‘To-to mi v hlavě le-leži’ in Act Three received from Taylor a reading of imagination and emotional directness. For this Vašek, meeting the exotic Esmeralda was like a thunderbolt: even when disguised as the circus bear, Taylor conveyed the lad’s infatuation uproariously. Taylor’s fantastic singing propelled Vašek to the center of the drama. Mařenka and Jeník are destined to be together, but this Vašek inspired the hope that he will enjoy a true love of his own.
His uniquely Bohemian musical identity notwithstanding, the marriage broker Kecal is a relation of operatic personages ranging from comic figures in the operas of Monteverdi and Cavalli to the meddlesome Goro in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. Performing Kecal’s music in English can bring him disconcertingly near to seeming like an escapee from the Savoy operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan, but bass-baritone Reginald Powell accentuated the echoes of Mozart that reverberate in Kecal’s music. In the trio with Ludmila and Krušina in Act One, Powell voiced ‘Jak vám pravím, pane kmotře’ commandingly, deftly disclosing the character’s smug self-satisfaction. Both ‘Mladík slušný’ and Kecal’s lines in the quartet were dispatched with sure intonation and fleet patter.
Kecal’s vocal line frequently plunges below the stave as his stratagems begin to unravel in Act Two. Powell’s voice was markedly more steady in the upper octave than in the music’s lower reaches, but he courageously confronted every descent into the depths. In his traversal of ‘Nuže, milý chasníku, znám jednu dívku’ in the duet with Jeník, the kinship between Smetana’s scene and the duets for Nemorino and Dulcamara in Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore was especially apparent. Kecal’s music in the bustling ensembles of Act Three teems with vocal obstacles, each of which Powell approached intrepidly. His singing in the final act’s wonderful quartet, sextet, and trio, numbers in which Smetana rivaled Verdi’s ability to simultaneously characterize multiple people by interweaving their vocal lines, elucidated Kecal’s growing awareness of having been outwitted by Jeník. Each of Powell’s Greensboro performances demonstrates heightened vocal confidence. His Kecal was emboldened by new musical and theatrical maturity.
Young and in love: tenor William Edwards as Jeník (left) and soprano Claire Griffin as Mařenka (right) in UNCG Opera Theatre’s 2022 production of Bedřich Smetana’s Prodaná nevěsta
[Photograph © by UNCG Opera Theatre]
Recently transitioned from baritone to tenor, William Edwards conquered Jeník’s difficult tessitura with galvanizing élan. The Romantic ardor of the young singer’s portrayal was manifested in his first phrases in the duet with Mařenka in Act One, his placement of the upper register gaining assurance as the performance progressed. Rarely for a tenor of his age, Edwards possesses an exquisite mezza voce, which he used to mesmerizingly express the depth of Jeník’s love for Mařenka. His voicing of the aria ‘Jak možna věřit’ in Act Two boiled with passion enunciated with gossamer tones. In the large ensembles of Acts Two and Three, Edwards ensured that Jeník’s words were audible without pushing the voice.
The scene in Act Three in which Jeník attempts to explain to Mařenka that his betrayal of her is subterfuge aimed at undermining Kecal’s scheming to bind her to Vašek was the apex of Edwards’s performance, the character’s love and determination arrestingly coloring the voice. Declaring his triumph over the plan to unite his beloved with his half-brother by revealing his own true identity, Edwards’s Jeník not only blissfully reunited with Mařenka but also initiated a tender reconciliation with his estranged father. Occasional stress as he ascended through the passaggio divulged Edwards’s ongoing adaptation of his technique to tenor repertoire, but the panache with which he sang Jeník’s strenuous music intimated that his voice’s technical foundation is admirably resilient.
The rôle of Mařenka was created in Prodaná nevěsta’s 1866 première by soprano Eleonore Ehrenbergů, a versatile singer whose three-decade career was inaugurated with portrayals of bel canto heroines and eventually encompassed performances of slightly heavier parts, including Jitka in Smetana’s nationalistic epic Dalibor. Ehrenbergů retired from the stage before the advent of recording technology, but Smetana’s music for Mařenka and Jitka suggests that, in range and flexibility, her voice may have been much like that of UNCG Opera Theatre’s Mařenka, soprano Claire Griffin. The poise with which Griffin sang Mařenka’s Act One aria, ‘Kdybych se co takového,’ established a high standard from she did not deviate. Her top A♭s in the aria and B♭s in the duet with Jeník were fully in the voice and integrated into the line, and her singing in the quartet shimmered with youthful fervor.
The capriciousness of Mařenka’s deception of Vašek in their scene in Act Two was playful rather than injurious, Griffin singing ‘Známť já jednu dívčinu’ with unmistakable purpose but no ill intent towards her bewildered suitor. Like her colleagues, she devoted welcome attention to voicing Mařenka’s lines in ensembles, not least those in which she learns of Jeník’s seeming perfidy, intelligibly. Her vocalism in the Act Three sextet affectingly limned the character’s disbelief, and the doubt and pain that permeated her suavely-phrased account of the aria ‘Ten lásky sen’ were genuinely touching. Equally effective was the anger that exploded in the duet with Jeník, the voice slapping him countless times before her hand completed the task. Prodaná nevěsta has the sort of lieto fine that modern audiences find ridiculous, but Griffin’s performance avoided contrivance, the allure of her singing silencing any qualms about Mařenka’s happily-ever-after reunion with Jeník.
Though the opera is now rightly hailed as the cornerstone upon which Antonín Dvořák and Leoš Janáček later built the Cxech operatic tradition, performances of Prodaná nevěsta are rare beyond the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Could the world’s opera houses not barter tired stagings of Carmen and La bohème for a good Prodaná nevěsta? As UNCG Opera Theatre’s production affirmed, Mařenka can beguile as memorably as Micaëla and Mimì, and a polka is as diverting as a seguidilla or a waltz.