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Bedrich Smetana: The Bartered Bride.

Dana Buredoya--soprano, Tomaas Juhas--tenor, Jozef Benci--bass, Meg Voracek--tenor, Gustav Belacek--bass, Lucie Hilscherova--soprano, Svatopluk Sem--baritone, Jaroslav Brezina--tenor, Katerina Knezikova--soprano, BBC Singers, Andrew Griffiths--chorus master, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Jiri Belohlavek--conductor.

Text: French, English. Recorded: 2O11, Barbican Centre, London. Released: 2012. DDD. TT: 64:30, 71:48. 1 CD

Harmonia Mundi HMC 90211920.

The time when labels rolled out one complete recording of an opera after another is long gone. We used to face the dilemma of which was the ideal disc to choose. Each of the recordings prided itself on superlative soloists, outstanding conductors and orchestras. The situation whereby two of the most renowned conductors recorded Wagner's Ring almost concurrently for two competing labels (Solti and Karajan in the 1960s) appears like a pope dream today. Although new complete albums--even with model performances--do crop up, they are usually reeditions. In some cases, we re-encounter artistic accomplishments that are difficult to surpass and it is good, necessary even, that they are constantly available. They are, however, mere documents of bygone eras. And it would seem that our era will remain a great unknown for future generations, not only when it comes to artistic conceptions but also actual performers themselves. Yet distinguished soloists gain their renown not only by means of appearing in stage productions, which can be seen by just a fragment of music-lovers, but also, and primarily, through recordings. The current generation does not even know its domestic stars! As regards new complete recordings, the situation of the Czech opera scene is catastrophic. Relating to this is the global awareness of the Czech repertoire. It may beggar belief, but the most recent Czech recording of The Bartered Bride (cond. Zdenek Kosler) was made 31 years ago. That is why the new CD (which should, naturally, have been produced in the Czech Republic yet was not) will at least in part serve to eradicate the rumour that we are not able to put together exquisite singers for the best-known and most typical Czech opera. The question arises of to what extent the new recording will be able to revive the erstwhile inner relationship to the opera that was common among Czechs, and not only in music circles. Yet this is a question for a quite separate discussion.

The new studio recording drew upon the concert performance of The Bartered Bride at London's Barbican Centre on 20 May 2011. It was a production of BBC Radio 3 and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, helmed by Jiri Belohlavek. Other Czech operas were performed under his baton in this manner, yet not all of them have appeared on commercial audio discs. In 2007, The Excursions of Mr. Broucek was recorded and released on CD by Deutsche Grammophon. In the case of the latest Bartered Bride, the CD was produced by Harmonia Mundi. The project's artistic guarantor, Jiri Belohlavek, carefully and thoughtfully selected soloists from the Czech Republic and Slovakia and, above all, managed to imprint the hallmark of authenticity on the two superlative London orchestras. This is by no means a matter of course--let us recall the many globally renowned recordings of The Bartered Bride and Ruselke received with quandaries in our country. The splendid BBC Singers have admirable Czech diction, whose attainment was certainly preceded by painstaking preparations. The BBC Symphony Orchestra plays with the typical Smetana melodiousness, without a trace of Romantic burden in the lyrical passages, with style and very nimble-witted gags in the folksy sections (frolicsome grace notes of the flutes in the Polka!). Perhaps only in the case of the Furiant does the orchestra play at too fast a tempo, during which dancers would only with the utmost difficulty be able to retain the basic attributes of the dance steps. But this is the problem of Smetana's original metronome, which for these reasons--in this case for the sake of the thing--is not generally adhered to. In the traditionally performed score, Jiri Belohlavek even found passages that bring new elements into the interpretation, which serves as a prime example that even familiar music is still open to new inventions on the part of performers without losing its identity. The rhythmically pregnant introductory fanfare "fired off" without exalted sound ensures perfect comprehensibility of individual parts right at the very beginning and establishes the requirement for faultless technical follow-through. The same situation occurs in the Skocna, in the case of which, unlike in older recordings, the snare drum is put to extremely effective use. Precision in abiding by the music notation, including the slightest details, is undoubtedly easier for an orchestra who are just discovering it and are not burdened by tradition.

Dana Buresova is a wonderful Marenka. Her performance on the CD is yet another proof of her being a soprano predetermined for great roles in the international opera repertoire, as well as, and most notably, an excellent and ideal young dramatic Smetana singer. The voice of the tenor Tomas Juhas (Jenik) possesses a pleasant lyrical timbre, with his diction only slightly revealing his non-Czech origin. The vocally perfect Gustav Belacek in the role of Vasek is rather serious, which may have resulted in a slower drift of his scene with Marenka in Act 2. Jozef Benci is a brilliant Kecal, with his comical ceremoniousness, even minor funny neighbourly displays, making him a nigh-on ideal performer of the character, The two parents fully meet the requirements of their roles. The recording is immensely irradiated by the dramatic moments of the "comedians" in Act 3. No Czech recording since the time of Ostrcil has featured a more convincing Ringmaster than that portrayed by Jaroslav Brezina, without any traits of convention!

The studio recording was made at the Barbican Centre, where the opera was given a concert performance. The acoustics are different to those in Prague's Domovina studio or the Rudolfinum yet still very pleasant indeed. The booklet is furnished in a standard manner, precisely within the label's intentions. The French and English translations of the libretto are placed separately. The absence of the Czech text, however, is beyond comprehension. The listener should have been provided with the original libretto, in the form it is presented by the majority of labels, including Czech ones--with the translations in columns right next to the original text.

It would be interesting to juxtapose this indisputably engrossing and, given the place of its making, remarkably stylish recording of The Bartered Bride with the Czech recordings released to date. Without resorting to perhaps tempting yet not always earnest superlatives, we can claim that Jiri Belohlavek has become an equal to Ostrcil, Vogel, Chalabala and Kos1er. With his CD of The Bartered Bride, the former music director of the BBC Symphony Orchestra has essentially enhanced his endeavour to present Czech opera abroad big-time. If only this were true at home too.
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Author:Vitek, Bohuslav
Publication:Czech Music
Article Type:Sound recording review
Date:Apr 1, 2013
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