'Bartered Bride' flawed but worthwhile

January 04, 1995|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

Since Smetana's "Bartered Bride" is such a great opera and (relative to its greatness) so rarely performed, it's difficult to quibble about the imperfections of the production mounted by the Washington Opera. Suffice it to say that this production of the most popular of all Czech operas, sung in English, captures enough of the "Bride's" grandeur, color and intimacy to make it worth a trip to Washington.

In the title role, Ann Panagulias makes a fine Marenka. She is pretty, she can act and she possesses a warm, lyrical soprano. She was responsive to the text's words and phrases and she made the third-act aria suitably yearning. One's only caveat was that her basically lovely voice often turned strident at the top.

Her Jenik, Mark Thomsen, was rather wooden, but he was still able to bring a good deal of tenderness and exuberance to his portrayal. The role of the marriage broker, Kecal -- who arranges the marriage that suits everyone, except the bride-to-be and her real love -- is one of the great comic roles in opera. In Smetana's native land, Kecal usually goes to a veteran basso buffo who has seen better days. In his performance, Peter Strummer tended to rely a little too much on cliches. But the young Austrian approached the role with welcome security throughout his range, a genuine trill, a chuckle in his eye and a Zero Mostel-like leer on his face.

Best of all was Peter Blanchet as Vasek, the shy simpleton to whom Marenka is contracted to marry. The operatic stammer was not invented by Smetana -- that honor probably goes to Cavalli -- but the Czech did more with it than anyone before or since, including Schoenberg in "Moses und Aaron." Smetana was able to incorporate Vasek's halting stammer into duets. Almost as remarkably, Blanchet's endearing portrayal was able to make the stammering fit the music with real verve -- to make the stammer not merely a matter of amusement, but to suggest the character's vulnerability and immaturity.

What is less endearing about this production is its design. That the rock musical "Tommy" currently occupies the Kennedy Center's Opera House may have been what made it necessary for the Washington Opera to stage the "Bride" in the Eisenhower Theater. The theater's small stage made the set, which was borrowed from the Canadian Opera in Toronto, look ridiculous. In Toronto -- in a theater much larger than the Kennedy Center's Opera House -- this set must have looked fine; in the Eisenhower Theater it resembled nothing so much as a gated community.

The use of the smaller theater was also the occasion for another of this production's major flaws. The Eisenhower's tiny pit necessitated the use of an orchestra much too small -- only two double basses -- to do justice to the music's majestic scope. Heinz Fricke, the company's music director, is a good and experienced conductor. But with so tiny a band, even he was not able to make the music occasionally suggest -- as it must -- the earth splitting open.

WASHINGTON OPERA

When: 2 p.m. Jan. 8, 15 and Feb. 5; 7:30 p.m. Jan. 19, 21, 25, 28, 30 and Feb. 1, 3, 8

Where: Eisenhower Theater at the Kennedy Center

Tickets: $29-$150

7+ Call: (202) 416-7800 or (800) 876-7372

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