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Czech opera not as good as it sounds

Published Oct. 6, 2005

Smetana's The Bartered Bride is considered the quintessential Czech opera. The Sarasota production is notable because it is performed in Czech, a language that not many singers are trained in. (The cast doesn't include any Czechs.) In the United States the opera has usually been given in German or English translation.

A party that included the ambassador from the Czech Republic was there for Saturday night's opening performance. It must have been an interesting experience for them, something like it would be for Americans visiting a Czech province to go to a local production of The Music Man.

The Bartered Bride, with Peter Leonard conducting, kicks off with an infectious overture that is often programed as a concert piece in its own right. Alas, it's all downhill after that, leading one to wonder about Czech opera. If this sentimental work is the top, then the repertory must be pretty thin, the efforts of Dvorak and Janacek notwithstanding.

Smetana's score has its moments, especially in the winds, and there are plenty of tuneful arias, but the overall effect is cloying. The composer revised the opera several times after its premiere in 1866, but the rudimentary libretto by Karel Sabina was a problem then and remains so now.

It's one of those stock 19th century tales: The parents of Marenka (Linda Mohler) want to marry her off to a rich young man, Vasek (Alberto Sanchez), but she loves Jenik (William Joyner). Marriage broker Kecal (William F. Walker) is hired to get the job done. The scenes include a beer-drinking chorus, somebody dressed up in a bear suit and other comic episodes. Mistaken identity turns the plot. There's a happy ending.

It doesn't help that director Albert Sherman's staging is so hokey. The women are costumed in colorful peasant garb, the men are in lederhosen, and everyone beams to beat the band. It's as if the Trapp Family Singers have taken over the opera house.

Oh, well, at least The Bartered Bride doesn't aspire to something it's not. Early on, the chorus sets the tone: "Come dance and sing with us." The best advice is to sit back and enjoy it.

Much of the singing is outstanding. Mohler has a warm, well-controlled soprano and tremendous range. Marenka's third-act aria Och, jaky zal (Oh, what sadness) is a dramatic high point. The music takes on a darker coloring than anywhere else in the opera and engages the listener emotionally.

Joyner's light, lyric tenor is a pleasure to hear. Saturday, Jenik's brief aria near the end of Act 2, Jak mozna verit (How could anyone believe that I would sell Marenka), was full of romantic feeling.

Walker has a booming bass delivery that works well for the most part. However, he gets into vocal trouble when he makes Kecal too broadly comedic. When Walker hams it up, he bellows.

Sanchez keeps Vasek's stammer in check.

Sabirjan Yapparov of the Sarasota Ballet choreographed the Bohemian folk dances, which feature members of the ballet company. It's good-natured but no great shakes, technically speaking, and the cramped stage doesn't provide much room for the dancers to kick up their heels.


The Bartered Bride

The opera by Smetana runs for four more performances at the Sarasota Opera House. Tickets are $15-$45. Call 953-7030.