Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Let's Make a Deal

Sam was in Berlin to see a revival of The Bartered Bride at the Komische Oper:

Smetana: The Bartered Bride
Komische Oper Berlin
9 October 2011

Komische Oper Berlin - Photo: Monika Rittershaus

It’s a commonplace in opera for several characters to be singing at the same time. Occasionally, you’ll even hear a last-minute substitute singing in a language other than the one in which his/her colleagues are singing.

But a replacement singing in the same language but following a different translation from the one his colleagues are using?

As you probably know, everything at Berlin’s Komische Oper is sung in German. Smetana’s The Bartered Bride (1866), whose original text is in Czech, is no exception. But the current production is using a translation by the company’s fabled founder Walter Felsenstein (1901-1975). It’s not clear to me why he made the effort, when there is already a standard German translation available, but he apparently was fluent enough in Czech to do it, so bully for him and the KO.

A little problem comes up, though, if illness strikes and you have no stand-bys who know Felsenstein’s translation. At a recent performance, Timothy Richards, who was to have sung Jenik, cancelled. His replacement Harrie van der Plas was recruited from Holland with only a few hours’ notice, but he knew only the standard translation.

The situation had all the makings of a Tour de Babel, but van der Plas managed to wing it convincingly. His colleagues also went into go-with-the-flow mode and avoided potential catastrophe by following the beat with unflagging concentration, while subtly steering van der Plas around the boards in Andreas Homoki’s relatively straightforward staging from 2002.

As far as I can tell, van der Plas has been singing professionally for about 15 years, making the rounds of European stages while ramping up vocal steam in such parts as Pollione, Anckerström and Turridu. Judging from his vocal ease and palpable confidence on stage, he may well be ready for prime-time. Harrie van der Plas is a singer worth attention.

Also worth attention at this performance: Christiane Kohl, who evinced a powerfully sung Marenka, Thomas Ebenstein as an engagingly comic Vesek and Jens Larsen as the crafty marriage broker Kecal. The hero of the performance, though, was conductor Alexander Vedernikov, who kept a tight rein on the proceedings onstage and led the orchestra through a bouncy reading right from the start of the pitfall-laden overture. (Gustav Mahler, who led the first performances at the Met in 1909, reportedly performed the overture at the start of Act II, so that latecomers could be treated to its marvels.) Even with a souffleur in the prompter’s box, Vedernikov paid close attention to cuing the singers himself and keeping the chorus under (Andre Kellinghaus’ direction) in check. Followers of the Bolshoi Opera know that Vedernikov was Music Director there from 2002 through 2009. He is often a guest at Europe’s major opera houses, and I look forward to hearing him again.

Did I mention the dancing? The folk dances in The Bartered Bride are one of the factors that has led to the work being called “the Czech national opera.” Since the premiere of this production nearly ten years ago, the Ballet of the Komische Oper has been dissolved. That’s why I didn’t mention the dancing.

©Sam H. Shirakawa

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