Antonin Dvo?·k: The Cunning Peasant (äelma Sedl·k)

It is no
Rusalka, let alone a match for Jan·?ek, but, especially during the
second act, there are both good music and fun to be had.

(Let us quickly pass over the truly dreadful overture; whatever was the
composer thinking?) The librettist, Josef Otakar Vesel˝, perhaps does Dvo?·k
few favours; as Jan Smaczny noted in his helpful programme note, ‘despite an
avowed aim to transform the fate of Czech literature by producing drama which
“did not resemble something written in the age of Shakespeare”,’ this
twenty-three-year-old medical student ‘had little success with his work for
the stage’. That said, he seems to have produced something, which, if
anything but transformative, would have appealed to popular, national tastes,
with its crowd peasant scenes and opportunity for dance. Parallels with The
Marriage of Figaro
have been drawn, but they are difficult to discern
beyond the stock devices of an aristocrat who would seduce a serving girl and a
plot to expose him. As Smaczny again observes, ‘the real focus of the plot is
the fate of the couple, JenÌk and B?tuska, and their love; the fact that this
[their love] is the object of parental disapproval places the plot more in the
realm of The Bartered Bride and The Kiss, than
Figaro .’ There is certainly none of the characterisation that forms
Mozart’s — and Da Ponte’s — eternal masterpiece.

Director Stephen Medcalf has, seemingly in part as a result of the opera’s
dramatic weakeness, decided to move the action to Hardy’s Wessex, even going
so far as to rename the characters. JenÌk and B?tuska become Joseph and
Bathsheba, and so on. No particular harm is done, though I am not quite sure
that the effort was necessary. Perhaps it just made a performance in English
translation easier, though Medcalf also alludes to ‘an attempt to avoid the
potential hazard of generalised Slavic folksiness’. The only case in which I
found the shift problematical — and, unless I have misunderstood, entirely
unnecessarily so — was the transformation of Vacl·v, the farmer’s son to
whom Martin/Gabriel would have his daughter wed, into a Jewish merchant,
Reuben. Having a Jewish character ‘humourously’ rejected by the girl,
mocked by the crowd, and consoling himself with his money left a bitter taste
in the mouth and struck me as the sort of thing that might have been better
altered rather than introduced in an adaptation. Otherwise, Medcalf presents
the action, potentially complicated plotting included, clearly, with attractive
period designs and — a particular boon, this — highly effective changes of
lighting from John Bishop.

Dominic Wheeler led the largely impressive orchestra with flair and
tenderness. It was striking how voluptuous a sound the strings (
could make during the ‘romantic’ sections of the second act. And if the
opening could not be turned into anything especially interesting, the fault for
that should lie with composer and librettist, certainly not with the
performers. As the music became more interesting — could not some of the
material for the scene around the Maypole have been reused for a better
Overture? — so did the performance sparkle all the more. Dancers (Thomas
Badrock, Jessica Lee, Claire Rutland, and Rahien Testa) from the Central School
of Ballet made a fine mark here too.

Vocally, there was much to admire too, starting with a highly creditable
choral contribution. Unfortunately, the central couple proved less impressive
than the supporting cast, Lawrence Thackeray’s Joseph often highly strained
and Laura Ruhi-Vidal struggling with her high notes in particular. However,
Martin H‰ssler’s Prince/Duke made an excellent impression, suggesting a
baritone of considerable music subtlety, nicely complimented by Alison
Langer’s attractively-voiced Duchess. John Findon, a late substitution in the
role of John, displayed excellent comedic and musical gifts alike, with Emma
Kerr more than his dramatic match as Gabriel’s housekeeper, Victoria. Anna
Gillingham, David Shipley, and Robin Bailey rounded off a spirited young cast,
from many of whom I suspect we shall hear more.

Mark Berry

Cast and production information:

B?tuöka (Bathsheba): Laura Ruhi-Vidal; JenÌk (Joseph): Lawrence
Thackeray; Martin (Gabriel): David Shipley; V·clav (Reuben): Robin Bailey;
Veruna (Victoria): Emma Kerr; Prince (Duke): Martin H‰ssler; Princess
(Duchess): Alison Langer; Jean (John) — John Findon; Berta (Fanny): Anna
Gillingham. Director: Stephen Medcalf; Set designs: Francis O’Connor;
Lighting: John Bishop; Choreography: Sarah Fahie; Dancers from the Central
School of Ballet/ Chorus and Orchestra of the Guildhall School/Dominic Wheeler
(conductor). Silk Street Theatre, Guildhall School of Music and Drama, London,
Wednesday 5 November 2014.

Click here for a podcast concerning this production.

image_description=AntonÌn Dvo?·k [Source: Wikipedia]
product_title=Antonin Dvo?·k: The Cunning Peasant (äelma Sedl·k)
product_by=A review by Mark Berry
product_id=Above: AntonÌn Dvo?·k [Source: Wikipedia]