The Bartered Bride - Smetana

'Bartered Bride' it was of a very high standard indeed.
(Graham Harris - NODA Representative)

Travelling to Sevenoaks Stag Theatre to see Kentish Opera's "The Bartered Bride" I knew I was in for a splendid evening. They always have a stupendous Set, Costumes, and Orchestra.

Sally Langford as director pulls it all together once again, this lady never fails for Kentish Opera, it is always a pleasure to watch the way she directs her principles, and a huge chorus of about 50 around the stage, her direction of any Opera is always first class.

A fantastic set this time by Enid Stutt, so solid and very workable right down to the cooing pigeons and nesting swan. Stupendous!

Costume Designer Carol Stevenson and her team provided the "wow factor" they were perfect, just perfect and so so colourful.

Lighting once again by Colin Martin was at the right level, although, I would have liked a little more personal lighting on principles at times.

Terrific choreography from Terry John Bates and executed by his dancers and acrobats to a very high standard.

Robyn Sevastos once again gave us the orchestra we always expect from her, and a level of professionalism that gives us that wonderful sound…. thank you Robyn.

Sally's choice of principals was impeccable once again and they all did you proud Sally. I enjoyed all their characterizations especially the young stuttering Patrick Ashcroft, as Vasek he was a joy to watch, in a very difficult part, perfect characterization!

I cannot fault any of the principles which included, David Hansford as Krusina Natasha Dobie as Ludmila,Cheryl Enever as Marenka,Richard Broadley as Micha,Katy Bingham-Best as Hata,Gareth Dafydd Morris as Jenik,Graham Stone as Kecal,Jeremy Vinogradov as the Ringmaster,Iza Kopec as Esmeralda,and Stewart Silcox as the Indian.

Along with a large chorus that sang, moved and gave us a feeling that we were up there with them.

Thank you "Kentish Opera" for inviting me and my Guest we enjoyed your 'Bartered Bride' it was of a very high standard indeed.

A Veritable Spectacle

Smetana's 'The Bartered Bride',

Extracts from his review

The Bartered Bride, in Kentish Opera's new staging directed by Sally Langford and designed by Enid Strutt, with feisty conductor Robyn Sevastos in the driving seat (and certainly driving it along), was well up to the company's recent stagings. And that's saying something.

The productions, while traditional, are rarely stuffy: Sally Langford has got down to a fine art that essential balance between old-hat and dramatically original. This performance [21 May 2014, Stag Theatre, Sevenoaks, Kent, UK] was typical. You can't exactly set this opera on a spaceship. But thanks to the flair and detail of Enid Strutt's designs, and a lot of common sense in directing the very alert and this time vocally superb Kentish Opera chorus, this staging was fresh, witty, stylish and cohesive. I enjoyed it enormously.

The two leads, Gareth Dafydd Morris (Jeník) and Cheryl Enever (Marenka) were not the main hits of this show. Enever, who has a slightly exaggerated (albeit modest) fast vibrato, was a pleasing rather than a sensational and youthful Marenka, singing nicely enough throughout, attractively innocent and vulnerable (to the batterings of parents and jumped-up authority); while Morris, a bit stolid initially as Jeník, seemed to unwind as his voice later took flight.

Morris shone in the hilarious duet with Graham Stone's Kecal, probably the second most famous section in the opera. The later stages showed what a pleasing tenor he is, ripe for Verdi and even Wagner. He's clearly a valued alumnus of the Royal Welsh College and Royal Academy of Music, and ready for picking up by Welsh National Opera and other companies (only Opera Minima is listed in his many credits; but the potential there is far greater). He will make a spectactularly dark Canio (in Pagliacci).

No, the laurels for this production, amid Carol Stevenson's wonderfully inventive and richly colourful costuming, the majority of it home-made by her and her brilliant team (Susanna Elvy, Barbara Sowerby), the reds and greens and yellows quite stunningly juxtaposed, such as you might see in villages alongside the Elbe (Labe) or Vltava, went to other, perhaps lesser, mortals.

The chorus excelled at every turn. Walk on parts like Jeremy Vinogradov's Ringmaster, joyously ringing up the curtain on the strolling players' circus show in Act III; Richard Broadley as Mícha, Jeník's father, ironically the root of the whole mix-up but actually benign, contributing nicely in low register to the later quartets; I'd say the same for Katy Bingham-Best as the ghastly, shrewish stepmother, but her voice somewhat grated and occasionally seemed a tinge sharp: but all that may have been intentional, and appropriate.

I liked Natasha Dobie as Marenka's sympathetic mother, Ludmila, initially for her voice and throughout for the empathetic character she created, trying to take the girl's side and prevent her husband attending only to the money-bags. The Royal College-trained Hansford has a heck of a voice, and is vocally at least, a huge potential talent.

For me there were three big stars of this Kentish Opera Bartered Bride. Graham Stone, a splendid actor, was a serviceable Kecal, the manipulating marriage broker who doesn't cause marital disasters but seeks to benefit from them. With his strong presence, sturdy personality and endless nice little touches, Stone lends a maturity to any performance he engages with. He's a lot of fun. Actually I thought he could have let himself go a bit more with Kecal - played it for jokes, camped it up, whatever.

The second was Polish soprano Iza Kopec as Esmerelda, the (supposed) tightrope walker. This circus performer was deliciously funny, cuddly, garish: glorious that she shares the affections of the blissfully hopeless Vašek, Marenka's intended husband.

But it was this timid character, Patrick Ashcroft's Vašek, always hiding behind trees so he wouldn't be spotted (Enid Strutt's tree, with some splendid, shifting green or blue-turquoise lighting from Kentish's fabulously experienced lighting designer of the past half century, Colin Martin, was just perfectly conceived), stu-stu-stuttering in rhythm, irredeemably wet and snivelly, who produced the most wonderful characterisation.

Though Vašek is pure pastiche, you have to believe in him: Ashcroft with a lovely voice to boot, drew both pity and sympathy ('women ... either want to marry or to murder me'). You ached for this pathological loser to do something right, but knew that, given a hammer, he would only hit his own finger. A melting performance, to remember and to cherish. And the clarinet introducing his Act III first entry was out of this world.

The almost forty-strong, well-trained chorus watched Sevastos like hawks, so she and her assistant conductor/repetiteur David Eaton were much responsible for the very high quality of choral singing that is often a feature of Kentish Opera. Characterful singing - and the chorus feel was Bohemian/Czech.

But the key to it all was the quality of Sally Langford's group directing. All the choruses were finely blocked. She managed to get them on and offstage - heaven knows how - in a trice. They knew what they were doing, and what they did was apt. Even in holiday mood, everyone had a role, or generated one. The male chorus of (mostly) village elders, when it sang alone, made a masterful job of it, and of clinking mugs or battling at cards (and occasionally falling out) too; and when they had to dance, they could!

I adored the detail of Enid Strutt's set. At least six entrances - that's generous and clever. The dovecote at the side, which fielded birds that actually moved and pecked (this should have been reactivated at the end, when all comes well). The different levels effected by sets of low stairs, stepladder, a ramp, a rear walkway (which could have been capitalised upon more). Solid wooden tables and stools, all spot on. The tree, and other greenery. Washing on the line. The bescarfed rabbi at his desk. The structures looked solid - something that really does differentiate professional from amateur stagings - and the feel of a Czech village was palpable. It gave the whole show an uplift: in short, it transported you there, to central Europe. There was a meekly obedient lifesize sheep. And a bird in the tree. The icing was the stork and nest on the rooftop: I was convinced it would leap into life too: it certainly looked as if it could.

Sally Langford's treatment of the final hoo-hah, with parents arriving from everywhere, last minute negotiations and marriages being concocted out of nowhere - for none of which Kecal receives a fee - was deft and clever and joyous. This finale was beautifully blocked (the principals), while even the chorus acquired an apt Viennese vocal tinge.

Marenka's last aria, contrastedly Wagner-tinged like Senta or Elsa or Elizabeth (Smetana was a Wagner devotee and conducted him avidly), and with scintillating oboe from Jenny Jaggard, was arguably her best. Sevastos' pacing of this section was beyond all praise, and at last Langford let that rearstage walkway come into its own.

What I haven't detailed yet is the superb circus act that Langford devised for Act III. Five little yellowclad child tumblers, coached by Tom Metcalf of Sanshu UK, cartwheeling and catapulting round the stage, were super; and their final freeze, all in different poses, especially the middle girl (Lucia Efstathiou) with her last minute gymnastic tease, brilliant.

I liked (as I said) Jeremy Vinogradov's tall Ringmaster, introducing the show with poise and aplomb. And of course, alongside Stewart Silcox's Black and White Minstrel Show Indian, and others, there was Kopec's Esmerelda. From her and two others who'd already starred in various chorus vignettes (and fights) we got a parasol tightrope dance: side-splitting. Stevenson's circus costumes - like all the others - were fabulous. The composer would have been thrilled that Kentish Opera made his comic turn such a veritable spectacle. Huge credit all round.





The photos were taken by Ken Brown, Sylvia Jones, Ron Harding, Janice Harding and Derek Medhurst of Sevenoaks Camera Club and Andrew Waltham of Kentish Opera.

A CD is also available containing about 400 of the best photos. Contact me if you would like a copy. Higher quality versions of all the photos are available if required.