Thursday, 1 January 2015

Guildhall School of Music and Drama: The Cunning Peasant

[From OPERA, January 2014, pp. 88-9]

Despite the fact that Rusalka is now a repertory staple, and that The Jacobin gets an occasional airing, Dvořák’s other nine operas still remain out-and-out rarities—this side of Prague, at least. This opportunity to see The Cunning Peasant staged, therefore, was especially welcome.

The piece, composed to a libretto by Josef Otakar Veselý in the first half of 1877, and originally given the altogether more scurrilous title of ‘A Slap for the Prince’, is usually described as a sort of mixture between The Bartered Bride, Le nozze di Figaro and The Jacobin. The arrival of the latter certainly put a major dent in The Cunning Peasant’s popularity, and the two operas share many elements: a rustic setting, true love finally finding its course, and a plot arguably crammed with a few too many elements, as well as a score in which melody after melody tumble over one another. But in the earlier work that plot is slighter (and without The Jacobin’s weightier political element), while Dvořák often also seems less adept at yoking all those folksy tunes to the dramatic action. The piece’s charms, however, are many, and the short second act, with its extended dancing-round-the-maypole sequence, is a delight. It is also a gift for smaller companies or, as here, student performers, with nine decent roles for a cast to get stuck into.

There was certainly a great deal to enjoy in Stephen Medcalf’s production for the Guildhall, even if his decision to transfer the action to rural England raised a few questions. Chief among these was regarding the fact that the wealthy Václav—one of several with an eye on the lovely Bětuška, or Bathsheba as she was here in Clive Timms’s translation—became the Jewish Reuben, his eventual humiliation suddenly taking on unhelpful Beckmesser-like overtones. Nevertheless, in Francis O’Connor’s clever set, in which rustic toy-town houses seemed to morph into nature, the action was clearly and imaginatively conveyed.

The cast—the second of two that the Guildhall presented—was led by Laura Ruhi-Vidal’s charming Bathsheba, sung in a small but appealing and soft-edged soprano. As her beloved Joseph (Jeník), Lawrence Thackery performed persuasively, but showed that his tenor is still a work in progress, as did Robin Bailey as Reuben. Martin Hässler as the Duke (rather than the original’s Prince) seemed nervous, but some intonation problems couldn’t disguise his handsome baritone. David Shipley, as Gabriel (originally Martin, Bathsheba’s mercenary father), was impressive, his bass rounded and full; Emma Kerr was also excellent, unveiling a rich mezzo as his sassy, eye-rolling housekeeper Victoria (Veruna). John Finden, as John, the Duke’s valet, made a very strong impression, his voice full and easy, and his stage manner natural. He was well matched by Anna Gillingham as Fanny (Berta), maid to Alison Langer’s dignified Countess.

Dominic Wheeler’s conducting kept the score skipping merrily along, while also being alert to its moments of more expansive lyricism, and the orchestra played with plenty of verve, underpinning what was ultimately an irresistible evening.

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