This wasn’t what I expected to be writing about today either.
However, there is a reason. I wanted to hear an old version of this opera before I listened to the latest one because I find that I notice more about any specific performance of a piece of music if I have some point of comparison. In addition, this DVD is part of a box set most of which I have been avoiding for months because it’s a box set of Met productions from the 1970s and 80s and a person can take only so much of that kind of thing at once. The DVD I actually want to watch is a good excuse for knocking this one off the stack. Also, I haven’t finished my grading yet.
Like most people, I love the overture to this opera. Levine and the Met’s orchestra do it full justice – the overture is exciting and energetic and in the part near the beginning where you get the progressively fuller and fuller string repetitions something about the way it’s recorded really gives you a physical sense of bows meeting strings. It’s great. In fact, the orchestral music was one of my favorite parts of this production – the dances as well as the overture.
But I confess I was a little startled when the first act began. I knew that there’s a German translation because I intend to listen to it this weekend, and I was aware that there was a French one as well, but the only other recording I’ve ever actually listened to of this opera was in Czech and I was sort of used to that, so I guess to the extent that I thought about it at all I was expecting Czech or maybe German. But nope – English! It was a little distracting. Not soul-destroying, exactly, but distracting.
It’s funny, with these older productions, how you get a weird sense of fakeness. Not in the performances, but in the way the stage looks and in a lot of the stage direction, despite the fact that the latter is clearly well thought out and well executed – the whole thing just comes off as very ‘stagey’. Something about the costumes and the backdrops and the – I don’t know, the limited emotional palette of how it looks. The Met has a big stage, but this feels little, somehow. But this is not really a criticism of the production; it’s more just an impression that I have as a result of changes in conventions over the past thirty-odd years in how operas ought to look. Also, the feeling of smallness may well be in part a video blurriness/video direction issue. Other than that there is little to complain about as far as the production is concerned. This, as I said, is from the Met in 1978, so the village looks like a village, the villagers look like villagers, and there are houses and fences and things of this kind. It’s cheerful and non-threatening.
Teresa Stratas as Mařenka (I’m giving the name in Czech because that is how it is written on the DVD cover and quite honestly I think we’ve had enough of people named Mary this week) strikes a nice balance between light-hearted and level-headed, although I expected more emotional punch to Mařenka’s aria “Just let me be!” in Act III (it’s “O welch ein Schmerz” in German and “Ó, jaký žal” in Czech). I particularly enjoyed her Act II scene with Vaŝek, who in this case is Jon Vickers – I kept wishing that I couldn’t understand the words so that I could concentrate more on how it sounded. Vickers is great. The man can stutter-sing like a pro. Nicolai Gedda as Jeník was less exciting to me both in terms of sound and in terms of characterization. There was something about this Jeník that was on the edge of being smarmy.
So anyway. I listened to this to put the opera back in my head again, since I haven’t thought about Smetana in ages, and I will admit that there were some parts where I was thinking ‘I want to see how Röschmann will do that’ which is sort of unfair to Stratas, but there you are. On the whole, though, this production was of the solidly high quality you would expect. It’s entertaining and even genuinely funny – there’s a bit in Act III where the circus performers/acrobats/dancers are dancing and one dancer knocks another over and the second, very gracefully, gives the first the bras d’honneur.