SMETANA: The Bartered Bride (complete opera) – Dana Burešová (Mařenka)/ Tomáš Juhás (Jenik)/ Jozef Benci (Kecal)/ Aleš Voráček (Vašek)/ Gustáv Beláček (Micha)/ BBC Singers/ BBC Sym. Orch./ Jiří Bělohlávek – Harmonia mundi HMC 902119.20 (2 CDs), 2:16:20 *****:
It’s been a while since we have had a new recording of Smetana’s Bartered Bride, and so this one is most welcome. The classic Kempe EMI recording (done in German) is still available and offers perhaps the best presentation of this opera until now. There have been a smattering of DVDs released in the last 10 years, and I think the Charles Mackerras reading on Chandos (which got a Grammy nomination in 2007) is also very much in the hunt in terms of desirability.
But this new recording (in Czech) by Jiří Bělohlávek, a man seasoned in the music of his birth, in sparkling sound and sprinkled with performances that delight from first to last, must surely now lead the pack in terms of overall quality, best sonic ambiance, and characterful presentation. All of the singers give their best in this performance, and Dana Burešová’s Mařenka is a real pleasure, coquettish, sympathetic, and vitally fresh in her portrayal. A good Mařenka goes a long way towards defining any performance of Bartered Bride, but her protagonist/lover Jenik is more icing on the cake when given such a fine reading as Tomáš Juhás gives him, and the caught-in-the-middle, confused Vašek is played to the hilt by Aleš Voráček. Only the Kecal of Jozef Benci gave me some pause; while his portrayal lacks nothing, his voice is a little tubby and wobbly at times, but nothing that should dissuade anyone from this recording.
Smetana’a original production was a huge failure; the 1866 audience was expecting a truly nationalistic opera, and even the National Theater was created (in 1862, when the first bricks were laid) to promote these ends. What they got would turn out to be the greatest national opera Europe would produce in the nineteenth century, but it took at least 20 more years before they would realize it, and the opera would conquer houses all over the world until the present day. The number of current recordings does not reflect its contemporary audience popularity. Smetana himself did not help; he went through four versions of the piece, and all of the praise in the world for the piece gave him no pleasure; he was never to regain enthusiasm for the opera, even though it would become, along with The Moldau, the defining piece of his career. This recording—certainly a new standard—does little to help the composer’s opinion of the work; on the contrary, it reminds us all of what a jewel Bride really is, and how much pleasure is to be taken from such a fine performance.
An excellent DG debut!