I am still smiling as I begin to write this, because this production is really an enormous amount of fun. It also takes the story seriously enough that none of the opera’s potential emotional content is lost.
This is a semi-staged production of Smetana’s opera. The semi-stage in this instance is part of a vintage carnival ride that they’ve taken apart and made into a sort of swoopy platform, with lots of lights and a second narrower platform between it and the orchestra. It’s brightly colored, but the background around it is dark – the impression is bright rather than garish. This smallish stage is used quite well, e.g. in the finale for Act I, where the (four) dancers and the chorus get the scale and energy of it all across despite the relatively small space they’re in. Costumes for the villagers are mid-twentieth century drab.
Costumes for the principles are a little more interesting. Jeník (Kurt Streit) looks like he’s just come from a club – the velvet jacket is enviable, as are the trousers. Vasek is dressed in a little blue velvet suit which underscores, naturally, that he is an absurd sort of man-child who has not been permitted to grow up. Marie’s costume is a variation on the same. It’s a white dress with puffy sleeves and a flouncy skirt and it looks borderline ridiculous. I am not saying that Dorothea Röschmann looks ridiculous. (That, I think, would take much more than just a silly dress. That woman’s musical gravitas is a match, I suspect, for any number of silly dresses.) I am saying that Marie looks a little bit awkward in this get-up, particularly given the contrast between what she’s wearing and the more ordinary clothes that all the other women are wearing. And this, I think, is precisely the point. This Marie is no teenager. Like Vasek, Marie is an adult who has not been permitted to become an adult. As an unmarried woman she’s stuck in a kind of limbo between childhood and complete adulthood, and being in this state sits on her rather uncomfortably. Like the dress.
And this little contrast is of a piece with the production as a whole. I liked the carnival-ride set because it’s this brightly colored and here and there patchily-painted object against a dark background, and this seems to get at the emotional flavor of the performance and perhaps of the opera in a more general way. This is bright, it’s a comedy, there is lots of dancing and it’s a bit slapsticky here and there and it ends happily, but there’s a space in it for a little darkness. I mean, on the one hand, you’ve got the little cookie on a ribbon that Marie gives to Vasek and which he later gives to Esmerelda (it says, in frosting, “ich hab dich lieb” or “I like you a lot”) You also have Ruben Drole (Kecal) who has one of the best “I am completely full of shit” grins I have seen on stage.
On the other hand, you have Dorothea Röschmann, who in terms of emotional force and interpretive power is the complete opposite of a heart-shaped cookie on a ribbon. As you would expect, she brings not just that lovely subtle voice but also thoughtful acting to this role. During the scene in Act II where Marie is telling Vasek, who does not at this point know who she is, that Marie is the last person he should marry, and that there’s another girl ready to kill herself for love of him, there is a point, just a brief little stretch, where you see all of Marie’s otherwise frustrated emotion being poured into this description of a woman ending her life for lack of the man she loves and you realize that on some level this maybe isn’t about Vasek. You can tell precisely where this begins and where it ends and Marie goes back to messing with the silly man in the velvet shorts. Later, Marie’s sense of betrayal over Jeník’s seeming deception runs a little deeper than it would if the character were younger – the repetition of “bleibe ewig treu” in the scene where Marie is informed she has been sold is wrenching, as is “O welch ein Schmerz.”
Kurt Streit sounds a little stretched at the highest notes, but with “Wenn du wüsstest . . .Wer dürft es glauben” he really makes you believe that Jeník believes Marie is something truly special. And Marie and Jeník’s “mit der ersten wahren Mutter” duet in Act I was one of several points in this production where I stopped to hear it again without watching so I could just listen to it.
Harnoncourt and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe get the rhythmic quality of Smetana’s music across – this whole opera is sort of dance-like. The orchestral playing has an appropriate sweep and weight to it that is not too serious or too big for the sort of opera this is. There is subtlety here but nothing heavy-handed.