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Opera Review

Bride, beau, and bear make merry in ‘The Bartered Bride’

Nicole Percifield (center) is Marenka in “The Bartered Bride,” presented by Boston Midsummer Opera.

Chris McKenzie

Nicole Percifield (center) is Marenka in “The Bartered Bride,” presented by Boston Midsummer Opera.

Last year, Boston Midsummer Opera presented Otto Nicolai’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” which is based on the Shakespeare play. This year, the company’s ninth season, we’re getting another mid-19th-century comedy from central Europe, Bedrich Smetana’s “The Bartered Bride,” and though the libretto, by Karel Sabina, doesn’t draw from the Bard, it’s clever enough to be Shakespearean. Like “The Winter’s Tale,” it even has a bear — and this one appears onstage. The original Czech is a challenge for non-native speakers to sing; Boston Midsummer Opera is using a new English translation by American poet J. D. McClatchy, and the result is lighthearted summer fare.

The setting for “The Bartered Bride” is a Bohemian village on the eve of a fair, and the question is just whose bride Marenka will be. Her debt-ridden parents, Krusina and Ludmila, want to marry her off to Vasek, the feeble-minded son of their rich neighbors Mícha and Háta, and to that end they’ve engaged marriage broker Kecal. Marenka, however, has promised herself to handsome young Jeník, a stranger to the village. When Kecal goes to buy Jeník off, Jeník horrifies Marenka, the villagers, and the audience by relinquishing his claim to her (for an exorbitant price) in favor of “Mícha’s son.” So Marenka is indeed bartered, but Jeník has a trick up his sleeve, and in the end true love wins out.

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All this takes place amid a flurry of ethnic dances (a polka in the first act, a furiant in the second, a skocná in the third), a salute to beer heartfelt enough to rival the students’ drinking song in Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffmann,” and the arrival of a troupe of comedians, complete with a bear that does the cancan. At the Tsai Performance Center, the dancing is performed by students from the Central Mass Dance Academy; there’s no attempt at actual folk dancing. The set, by Stephen Dobay, comprises a string of brightly colored miniature village houses strung overhead and against the rear wall, the silhouette of a church, a pennant-festooned wooden structure resembling a huppah, and a trestle table — not prepossessing, but it suffices. Elisabetta Polito’s period costumes look all right individually, but don’t add up.

Smetana’s overture is a festive, bustling affair that harks back to Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” and “The Marriage of Figaro.” Performing Tony Burke’s orchestral reduction, music director Susan Davenny Wyner and the 21-piece ensemble round off the sharp corners, and though the subsequent dances don’t exactly plod, they are quite sedate. There are no supertitles, and a fair bit of the libretto is unintelligible. From what I could make out, McClatchy’s translation is less Gilbert-and-Sullivanish than the one Kit Hesketh-Harvey did for the Royal Opera a decade back, but it still takes considerable liberties with Sabina’s compact text, sounding at times more like musical theater than opera.

The singing is strong, the acting variable. Nicole Percifield’s Marenka brings out the many nuances of Smetana’s heroine, and her body language is so clear, you hardly need to understand what she’s singing. She’s especially powerful in her “seduction” of Vasek. Eric Barry is a shambling bear of a Jeník with a honey-sweet voice; Jason Budd, whose Falstaff was the highlight of last year’s “Merry Wives,” is an effectively all-business Kecal.

Eric Downs’s Krusina is a retiring sort who cedes authority to his sharp-tongued wife, Teresa Eickel’s Ludmila. Ethan Bremner’s bearded Vasek seems more sad-sack than feeble-witted, but he does well with his many stuttering lines. David Lara and Christina English are intriguing as Vasek’s well-dressed parents, Mícha and Háta, particularly when she starts pawing her husband; it’s too bad they come on so late.

Stage director Antonio Ocampo-Guzman indulges in some minor rearranging and cutting; there’s no harm in that, but he does flatten out the story and soften its darker aspects. Still, Smetana’s “Bride” is a rare visitor to the Boston altar, so even this modest production is a welcome one.

Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at jeffreymgantz@gmail.com.
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