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The Bartered Bride
Burešová; Juhás, Voráček, Benci; BBC Singers and Symphony Orchestra, Bělohlávek. Translation. Harmonia Mundi 902119.20 (2)
Bedřich Smetana's Prodaná Nevěsta (1866, revised 1870) is no joke. Too often thought of and treated as a near-operetta, the work is a first-rate comic opera requiring great string playing and very fine operatic singing. Introduced to the Met by no less than Bohemia-born Gustav Mahler, the score has been championed there by Artur Bodanzky, Bruno Walter and James Levine. It remains a repertory staple in Central Europe; despite its sophisticated faux-naïve evocation of the Czech national character — Oklahoma! makes a good comparative case — it has always been tremendously popular in German-speaking theaters.
The glistening, supple orchestral performance under Jiří Bělohlávek proves the strong point of Harmonia Mundi's new issue, recorded at London's Barbican in May 2011. Chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra from 2005 through 2012, Bělohlávek (an established presence in the Met's Slavic repertory for a decade) raised the ensemble's already high standards.
The cast members, almost entirely Czech and Slovak, are certainly idiomatic and well-routined in their parts. Few of them have sung outside Central European theaters and few seem likely to forge major international careers on the basis of this recording. One would be lucky to hear such a finely integrated ensemble today in Prague, Brno or Bratislava, but it doesn't seem adequate for an internationally-intended recording. (The booklet offers the text in English and French but curiously not in the original.)
Soprano Dana Burešová came to Prague's National Theatre via an audition contest for Mařenka. I first heard her there in the part in 2001; it also served for her U.S. opera debut in Baltimore. She's a charming, fully equippedlyric exponent of a role that can benefit in places (particularly in the climax of Act III's sextet and the subsequent aria) from a larger instrument. Burešová's voice here generally retains its freshness but can't boast a timbre with a particularly memorable personal character. That said, she provides many graceful touches along the way. Tomáš Juhás is presentable as Jeník but sounds rather small-scaled and dry when full-throated lyricism is needed. Jozef Benci is spirited as the marriage-broker Kecal — a part requiring the dexterity of a fine Osmin or Leporello — but his voice spreads on top and pitch frequently drags. Aleš Voráček is a conventional, wispy but pleasant-sounding Vašek. Jaroslav Březina, who has often played Vašek in Prague, here takes on the spieltenor duties of the Ringmaster with far more attractive tone than the part usually receives. The BBC Singers are satisfactory but hardly fully idiomatic.
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