Claire, Appleby, Bisch, Lewis / Levine
It wasn't for nothing that Juilliard Opera included choreographer, City Ballet alum, and celebrity beau Benjamin Millepied in its starry production lineup for Smetana's best-known opera. The show -- the first flower of Juilliard's collaboration with the Met's Lindemann program, announced three years ago this month -- owes its unity and its best production moment to his dances. That's not the worst sort of show, but it's not quite the best either.
The Bartered Bride, like most comedies, is about belonging -- or, rather, integration: the reconciling, not utter effacing, of one's finite and infinite hopes to the complex and not-quite-immovable demands of civilized human necessity and vice versa. (A story of reconciling with the rather more immovable demands of natural necessity -- like, say, Věc Makropulos -- usually ends in death and isn't a comedy.) Here that civilizational process is given the physical metaphor of dance. The first two acts' scenes are set with character dances -- the organized, intricate whirl of society's body around the central couple -- and the lovers themselves follow up in similar manner. Jenik, after vowing to win Marenka's hand, works on his dance steps in the "outdoor" space behind where her parents try to set her fate; Marenka herself does a more frustrated solo bit later on as she's beset by opposition. The start of Act Two shows the place of both Marenka's suitors at once: Jenik -- who hasn't yet found his winning course -- sits glum in his central chair as the general dance goes on around him, while Vasek, a bumpkin fresh from the country, cannot help but jostle and trip as he moves in that hectic space. And when Vasek is won in the next act by another life and woman than what had been set for him, it's not by her looks so much as by his unexpected ability to join fluently with her and her circus company in their show-off number (and the subsequent offer to join her act as, well, the dancing bear). Until that point, none of the leads had been able to find their place in the general motion -- no wonder Vasek's sudden triumph (and its clever realization by Millepied and the cast) brought down the house.
Using Millepied's choreography in this way is, I think, to director Stephen Wadsworth's credit, and Wadsworth himself deftly handles the non-dance choreography of the town locals. But while also drawing excellent individual performances from the comic leads -- tenors Alexander Lewis (who steals the show as Vasek) and Noah Baetge (the Ringmaster) and bass Jordan Bisch (an amusingly self-satisfied Kecal) -- Wadsworth critically fails at the heart of the piece. Layla Claire as Marenka and Paul Appleby as Jenik do well with others, but their central romance seems -- bizarrely -- an afterthought in this show. The pair's given no physical language for their rocky relationship and not even a loving, relieved embrace at their final triumph -- only an all-too-clever reveal of them necking under a table at curtain call. Perhaps there's some performer-based explanation, but with this young and seemingly game and responsive cast it's hard not to give blame as well as credit to the director.
The biggest name, of course, was James Levine, who despite his bad back (he couldn't leave the pit for curtain calls) is conducting the run of this Juilliard show. This was the greatest pleasure of the evening, as his presence energized the young orchestra to spirited life in the motion of Smetana's opera.
The young singers -- mostly members or recent alums of the Met's Lindemann program -- also accounted well for themselves. If Appleby and Claire weren't able to play mutual passion, they each sang well enough, with Claire's live top notes proving the most expressively interesting instrument of the night. (She also has an attractive face & figure not evident as the Don Carlo page.) The comic leads, as above noted, did well all around... except they, like the lovers, had to fight the English-language text. Doing the translated version may be traditional here, but in J.D. McClatchy's new translation it just seems dated. That the patter-rhythms of the music don't match well to our speech may be unavoidable, but McClatchy provides little verbal spark or originality to justify his own rhymed rendition. Perhaps the original Czech is similar doggerel, but if so I'd prefer the privilege of not having to hear and understand (the cast has unfortunately good diction all around) every empty word, particularly in the sublime music of Marenka's famous Act Three aria of despair.
As an official Met show this would be worthy, but I hope that if/when, as rumor has it, the production actually makes its way (enlarged) to the big stage across 65th Street, the star tenor and soprano take the romance part into their own hands... and, if possible, insist on Czech. Until then, this particular run continues tonight (Thursday) and on Sunday afternoon -- officially sold out, but there were some empty seats so returns may be available.
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Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.