Rockdale Opera’s latest offering, a quirky and very Australian update of Smetana’s Czech classic, goes above and beyond the usual Sydney pro-am fare, with a top-notch ensemble cast.
LEFT: Wannabe marriage-broker Kecal encourages Krusina to marry off his daughter for money. (L-R: Rory Struthers, Christopher Curcuruto, Kate Wilmot).
Image credit: Ray Wing-Lun / Rockdale Opera Company
Review by Holly Champion
Smetana’s ground-breaking Czech nationalist opera is no easy feat to pull off. But pull it off they do– Rockdale Opera has truly exceeded expectations. In its leading cast, it has garnered some real jewels, particularly with two very good young tenors who manage to both sing well and act and be attractive to look at (two of them! how did they manage that?!) — these being Joshua Oxley (the dashing, though somewhat wily Jenik) and Blake Parham (the adorably dorky, stuttering Vašek). Rockdale also boasts a Mařenka (Georgia Kokkoris) with a lovely, strong and flexible soprano, a bright smile and on-the-money acting chops, and most astonishingly, a Kecal (Christopher Curcuruto) who simply owns the stage whenever he is on it, and whose satisfyingly rich bass-baritone fills the Rockdale Town Hall. Curcuruto brings a humour and charisma to this potentially odious money-hungry character, making Kecal into something of a cross between a modern-day Shylock and Rodney Dangerfield.
The show was great, but it was not perfect. Saturday night’s premiere could have used one or two more rehearsals to tighten things up, and the instrumentalists looked distinctly relieved when they finally made it through the long, complex score. I was surprised, and felt sympathy for the performers, when I read in the programme that they had to get back up there and do it all again the next day!
It really was energetic: Choreographer Rachael Fullston’s dancers-cum-circus performers kicked and twirled in Anne Kintominas’ colourful costumes, and the Maypole ribbons whirled as fast as the violins’ melodies. Director Luise Napier’s change of setting from 19th-century Bohemia to rural 21st-century Australia certainly did not dampen the Czech flavour of this production, with its set festooned with Czech flags as well as the odd Aussie one. Making the story about an immigrant community added profound layers of meaning to the plot’s inherent tensions between the parental ‘old guard’ and the younger generation. The younger set here were traditionally garbed for the Mayday celebrations, but sighed over snapshots of their girlfriends on iPhones, and complained in Aussie accents that “times have moved on” from such outdated customs as marriage-brokering.
Given the uneven distribution of the cast’s powers of vocal projection, I might have wished for surtitles. Yet having the show sung in English worked very well overall. (Though this is a tradition of the Rockdale Opera company, it is rare these days in the Western opera world). The leads managed to ensure that the notoriously ‘dippy’ Aussie diphthongs did not mar their timbre or intonation. With a libretto based on a translation by Rosa Newmarch, Napier and Musical Director Julia de Plater’s adaptation was modern enough in style to seem realistic, but thankfully not so far as to seem crass.
LEFT: Jenik dreams of a way to get the girl…and the money into the bargain. (Joshua Oxley).
Image credit: Ray Wing-Lun / Rockdale Opera
As a feminist opera lover, I cannot help but feel torn at Smetana and Karel Sabina’s plot. I detest the whole concept of bartering—or, let’s face it, outright buying and selling—a bride, and with other productions this icky feeling does persist, despite the opera’s appealing comedy and the fact that the wheeler-dealer matchmaker and the silly grasping parents get their comeuppance in the end. But overall, this show doesn’t feel anti-feminist: perhaps it is the updated location, or perhaps it is the lack of male privilege in the running of things behind the scenes. I heartily applaud de Plater, Fullston and Napier for their dedication and fresh approach to this show, and for their inspired casting. An all-female creative team is a rare and lovely thing!
Given the problems with synchronisation that I heard on opening night, I can—reluctantly—only give Rockdale’s The Bartered Bride 3 ½ stars for now. But it has oodles of potential. It is my bet that by next weekend’s performances, with two shows under their belts and a well-deserved vocal rest, this show’s promising young cast and orchestra will really take off and fly. It is well worth the very modest ticket price. Go and see it while you can!
The Bartered Bride is playing at Rockdale Town Hall
Saturday 12th November 7:30 pm
Sunday 13th November 2:00 pm
Saturday 19th November 7:30 pm
Sunday 20th November 2:00 pm
PHONE BOOKINGS: 02 4730 6932