If opera is a marriage of music and theater, words often amount to a bridesmaid at best. Librettists don’t get much respect; translators of libretti, even less. So it comes as a pleasant surprise when a distinguished, award-winning American poet like J.D. (“Sandy”) McClatchy turns his talents to producing both original opera libretti (20 at last count) and singing translations of libretti for operas by Mozart and other composers. This week, Boston opera fans will have the opportunity to hear McClatchy’s new English translation of Czech composer Bedrich Smetana’s folksy comic opera “The Bartered Bride” in a production mounted by Boston Midsummer Opera.
McClatchy originally prepared this translation on a commission from New York’s Metropolitan Opera, at the request of its music director, James Levine, a passionate advocate of “The Bartered Bride,” completed in 1870 and for many years the only Czech opera in the standard repertory. The project was part of a unique partnership between the Met and the Juilliard School next door.
In February 2011, Juilliard staged the opera in McClatchy’s translation with Levine conducting a student cast, in a trial run. A New York Times review of the premiere stated that the English version, “characteristically clever and packed with cheeky wordplay, neatly serves the characters and situations, and mostly suits music originally tailored to Czech cadences.”
The original plan was that McClatchy’s translation would subsequently be staged as part of a new production at the Met in 2015. But that didn’t happen. In a recent phone interview from his home in Stonington, Conn., McClatchy, a professor at Yale, explained that the Met’s board decided about a year after the 2011 Juilliard production that, owing to budgetary constraints, “only shows that would stay in the permanent repertoire could be mounted.” (This has not prevented the Met, however, from producing in the last few years new stagings of several operas less popular than “The Bartered Bride,” such as “The Nose” by Dmitri Shostakovich, or “Prince Igor” by Alexander Borodin.)
McClatchy admits “it was a huge disappointment” that the planned Met production was canceled. But eventually the Met agreed to allow opera companies to “lease” the translation. Boston Midsummer Opera’s production this week will be the first since the Juilliard staging to use McClatchy’s version.
Since he does not know Czech, McClatchy worked with a Czech native speaker on the Met’s staff, who provided a literal translation of Karel Sabina’s original text. The Met’s musical staff also gave him “plenty of help” to be sure that his version could be easily sung. “Czech and English work differently,” McClatchy observed. “It was difficult, because the accents were coming in the wrong place.” In Czech, the strongest accent always comes on the first syllable of every word, unlike the variable stress in English.
One of the most challenging pieces was the famous “stuttering” aria sung by the rustic village booby Vasek, a tenor, at his first appearance. McClatchy rendered it this way: “Mo. . . mo. . . Mother told me. No. . . no. . . Not to worry. Ta. . . ta. . . Take it slowly. The. . . the. . . There’s no hurry.” “Vasek is a wonderful character,” McClatchy said, “and there aren’t many stuttering arias in opera.”
The plot of “The Bartered Bride” is, in McClatchy’s words, “very traditional, a romantic comedy with the usual misapprehensions.” The hard-headed parents of the spunky soprano heroine, Marenka, plan for their own financial gain to marry her to the wealthy but silly Vasek. But she already loves Jenik, also a tenor and the romantic hero, and takes matters into her own hands through trickery, disguise, and deceit. Jenik engages in his own share of deception, but only for a good cause. Meanwhile, the circus comes to town and Vasek finds his true calling as a dancing bear. Needless to say, all ends happily, with considerable choral rejoicing and dancing.
Because it requires a large cast plus chorus and dancers, “The Bartered Bride” is the most ambitious production in the nine-year history of Boston Midsummer Opera. Director Antonio Ocampo-Guzman, who also directed last season’s offering, Otto Nicolai’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” said in a recent interview that McClatchy’s translation helps to overcome what he termed “deficiencies” in the libretto.
“I think this is a more complex opera than those of Rossini and Donizetti,” Ocampo-Guzman said. “Although comic, the story has some dark hues. All the characters are deceiving somebody else in order to survive in a society driven by economic need and oppression. It is a story about claiming identity — just as Smetana was in this opera trying to claim identity for Czech music.”
Mostly for budgetary reasons, the 2011 Juilliard production moved the action forward from the 1860s, when the Czech lands belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, to Czechoslovakia in 1938. Ocampo-Guzman, scenic designer Stephene Dobay, and music director Susan Davenny Wyner have restored the original setting. “It is a rural setting: simple, green, a village festival,” Ocampo-Guzman explained. The traditional Czech dances (polka, furiant) will be performed by the young members (ages 6 to 14) of the Central Mass Dance Academy in Worcester, who “stole the show” in last summer’s “Merry Wives of Windsor.”
For Ocampo-Guzman, the message of this bittersweet opera, made more accessible in McClatchy’s translation, is that “one ought always to be optimistic. We must seize opportunities in life, like Marenka and Jenik do.”Harlow Robinson can be reached at email@example.com.