Wild West Puts Spring In This 'Bride's' Step

By Sarah Hoover
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, March 30, 2007

What did it take for Baltimore Opera Company to fully animate Smetana's "The Bartered Bride" on Wednesday? As it turned out, a Czech conductor and two principals from the Czech National Theatre Opera were not quite enough, worthy as they were. But a Wild West show and a bumbling comic tenor notably quickened the pulse in the opera house: With a touch of campy Americana, this Czech opera was brought to exuberant life.

Conductor Oliver von Dohnanyi led the orchestra in a tidy and earnest reading of the famous overture, exhibiting a carefulness that seemed matched by the performers onstage throughout the first act. As the night went on, singers and orchestra markedly loosened up; by the third act, Dohnanyi seemed to have things just where he wanted them, creating a shapely and dynamic balance between instrumentalists and vocalists.

The two principal singers, Dana Buresova as Marenka and Valentin Prolat as Jenik, each possess dark-hued Slavic timbre and the requisite vocal power to project over Smetana's dense orchestration. Buresova was a believable gamin, youthfully vulnerable and tempestuous at the same time. Her sometimes steely sound warmed to gleaming in the affecting "Ten lasky sen." Cutting a handsome figure as her suitor, Prolat complemented his dark sound with ringing high notes in "Jak mozna verit." The pair were particularly well-matched in their Act 3 lovers' quarrel, staged cleverly with much pouting and slamming of doors.

In more strictly comic roles, Gregory Frank portrayed Kecal, the marriage broker, with the flair of a snake-oil salesman. Particularly splendid were his showoff low notes, resonant and sustained, in his animated sparring with Jenik. And Doug Jones had just the right touch as scene-stealing Vasek, Marenka's endearingly pathetic would-be suitor: In a Charlie Chaplin suit and carrying a bouquet of flowers, he stumbled and stuttered his way over the stage with flawless comic timing.

Lesser roles were handled ably by Phyllis Berg, Timothy Mix, Suzanne S. Chadwick and Alexander Savtchenko, who joined with Buresova and Frank in a moving ensemble at the end of the third act. The chorus, too, is to be commended for a rich sound and boisterous enthusiasm, particularly in the lively Act 2 drinking chorus.

But it was the arrival of a Wild West show in the third act that captured the audience. Director James McNamara chose to perform the entire circus scene in English with Czech translations projected above. Ringmaster Luke Grooms and Indian chief Patrick Toomey sang their parts with a sort of raucous Oklahoma twang, adding to the overall goofiness of juggling Indian women, a trained dog, a knife thrower and a stilt dancer. In a triumphant finale, Penny Schumate as Esmerelda was lifted high above the stage on a swing next to a moonlike neon sign emblazoned with "Circus Novak." This set piece worked beautifully, making good use of the dancers and chorus.

The set of cottages nestled side-by-side, painted in light earth tones, created a folksy backdrop for the action at hand. Particularly ingenious were walls that slid back to reveal cozy interior spaces -- they seemed to suggest a warm vision of domestic life and the happy future that lies ahead for the "bartered bride" and her betrothed.

The Bartered Bride will be repeated tonight at 8:15 and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets and information are available by calling 410-727-6000 or visiting http://baltimoreopera.com.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company