Two major institutions, The Juilliard School & The Metropolitan Opera, came together last evening in a co-production of Bedřich Smetana’s The Bartered Bride at Juilliard’s intimate Peter Jay Sharp Theater. This production uses a bouncy new English language version of the opera written by J.D McClatchy who was specifically chosen by James Levine to translate the piece. Since ticket sales were opened, this production has largely been sold-out, likely due to the participation of Levine (conducting the Julliard Orchestra) and director Stephen Wadsworth. The production will make its way to the Met (according to Brad Wilber) during the 2014/2015 season. What was the product of such an undertaking? A night of great fun and wonderful new discoveries.
Wadsworth’s production places the plot in – as suggested in the director’s note – a 1930s Czechoslovakian café. The café effectively serves as the meeting place for Marenka and Jenik, a dancehall for a traveling circus, and as a beer hall for local men celebrating the glories of ale (here here!). As a whole, the set is effective and functional. And yet, despite its functionality, it is largely lifeless. The background consists of little more than the back of the café facade and the set is limited to a few tables and a bar. Only during the third act traveling circus scene - where a virtuoso violinist, a surprisingly limber male ballerina, and a very flexible contortionist performed acts of awe - did the production serve as a physical mirror to Smetana’s joyous music. So much so that James Levine gave a big thumb’s up in the pit. Otherwise, the set was rather two dimensional and dull, qualities that will be more obvious at the much larger Met.
Any deficiency in the physical production had no affect on the talented young ensemble on stage (chosen from the Met’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program and the Julliard Opera). These young artists demonstrated significant talent and genuine vocal excitement. To single out each member of the cast would be a difficult undertaking as all involved are deserving of recognition, but it would be simply criminal not to mention the fine work of Layla Claire. Claire’s beautiful vibrato, clean line, agile voice, and full bodied sound provided the vocal highpoint (among many) of the evening. Each of Claire’s arias rightly received the warmest and largest reception of the night. Her natural portrayal of the role, without any of the dramatic gestures often associated with opera, showed that acting and performance is not being ignored at Julliard. We hope to not sound too cliché, but last night was Ms. Claire’s star is born moment.
As wonderful as it is to hear Smetana’s music it isn’t the easiest music to execute, though you wouldn’t know it hearing the incredible Juliard Orchestra perform. Under Levine’s direction, the orchestra was inspired. Smetana’s music runs the gamut from standard 19th century opera to national Czech sounds, including polka and Bohemian dance music. From the bouncing overture to the blithe circus music, the orchestra played with great attention to the score (they were playing under Levine after all) while creating a warm and playful sound. Oh yeah, did we mention Levine? He approached the podium with a great deal of effort and with the assistance of a cane, but throughout the almost three hour performance, Levine conducted with a level of energy he rarely shows at the Met. This combination of conductor, orchestra, and music was a rather perfect fit.
New Yorkers have only two more opportunities to see this wonderful opera (that is, unless they want to wait until 2014). The last two performances will be this Thursday and a matinee on Saturday. Do whatever you can to score a ticket!