Silk Street Theatre, Guildhall School of Music and Drama
Bĕtuška (Bathsheba) – Laura Ruhi-Vidal
Jeník (Joseph) – Lawrence Thackeray
Martin (Gabriel) – David Shipley
Václav (Reuben) – Robin Bailey
Veruna (Victoria) – Emma Kerr
Prince (Duke) – Martin Hässler
Princess (Duchess) – Alison Langer
Jean (John) – John Findon
Berta (Fanny) – Anna Gillingham
Stephen Medcalf (director)
Francis O’Connor (set designs)
John Bishop (lighting)
Sarah Fahie (choreography)
Dancers from the Central School of Ballet
Chorus and Orchestra of the Guildhall School
Dominic Wheeler (conductor)
What an enjoyable opportunity to encounter Dvořák’s sixth opera, Šelma Sedlák¸or The Cunning Peasant! It is no Rusalka, let alone a match for Janáček, but, especially during the second act, there are both good music and fun to be had. (Let us quickly pass over the truly dreadful overture; whatever was the composer thinking?) The librettist, Josef Otakar Veselý, perhaps does Dvořák few favours; as Jan Smaczny noted in his helpful programme note, ‘despite an avowed aim to transform the fate of Czech literature by producing drama which “did not resemble something written in the age of Shakespeare”,’ this twenty-three-year-old medical student ‘had little success with his work for the stage’. That said, he seems to have produced something, which, if anything but transformative, would have appealed to popular, national tastes, with its crowd peasant scenes and opportunity for dance. Parallels with The Marriage of Figaro have been drawn, but they are difficult to discern beyond the stock devices of an aristocrat who would seduce a serving girl and a plot to expose him. As Smaczny again observes, ‘the real focus of the plot is the fate of the couple, Jeník and Bĕtuska, and their love; the fact that this [their love] is the object of parental disapproval places the plot more in the realm of The Bartered Bride and The Kiss, than Figaro.’ There is certainly none of the characterisation that forms Mozart’s – and Da Ponte’s – eternal masterpiece.
Director Stephen Medcalf has, seemingly in part as a result of the opera’s dramatic weakeness, decided to move the action to Hardy’s Wessex, even going so far as to rename the characters. Jeník and Bĕtuska become Joseph and Bathsheba, and so on. No particular harm is done, though I am not quite sure that the effort was necessary. Perhaps it just made a performance in English translation easier, though Medcalf also alludes to ‘an attempt to avoid the potential hazard of generalised Slavic folksiness’. The only case in which I found the shift problematical – and, unless I have misunderstood, entirely unnecessarily so – was the transformation of Vacláv, the farmer’s son to whom Martin/Gabriel would have his daughter wed, into a Jewish merchant, Reuben. Having a Jewish character ‘humourously’ rejected by the girl, mocked by the crowd, and consoling himself with his money left a bitter taste in the mouth and struck me as the sort of thing that might have been better altered rather than introduced in an adaptation. Otherwise, Medcalf presents the action, potentially complicated plotting included, clearly, with attractive period designs and – a particular boon, this – highly effective changes of lighting from John Bishop.
Dominic Wheeler led the largely impressive orchestra with flair and tenderness. It was striking how voluptuous a sound the strings (10.8.6.6.3) could make during the ‘romantic’ sections of the second act. And if the opening could not be turned into anything especially interesting, the fault for that should lie with composer and librettist, certainly not with the performers. As the music became more interesting – could not some of the material for the scene around the Maypole have been reused for a better Overture? – so did the performance sparkle all the more. Dancers (Thomas Badrock, Jessica Lee, Claire Rutland, and Rahien Testa) from the Central School of Ballet made a fine mark here too.
Vocally, there was much to admire too, starting with a highly creditable choral contribution. Unfortunately, the central couple proved less impressive than the supporting cast, Lawrence Thackeray’s Joseph often highly strained and Laura Ruhi-Vidal struggling with her high notes in particular. However, Martin Hässler’s Prince/Duke made an excellent impression, suggesting a baritone of considerable music subtlety, nicely complimented by Alison Langer’s attractively-voiced Duchess. John Findon, a late substitution in the role of John, displayed excellent comedic and musical gifts alike, with Emma Kerr more than his dramatic match as Gabriel’s housekeeper, Victoria. Anna Gillingham, David Shipley, and Robin Bailey rounded off a spirited young cast, from many of whom I suspect we shall hear more.