The only serious handicap of the latest production of UNC Greensboro's Opera Theatre was the venue. Instead of the wonderful renovated Aycock Auditorium, with its spacious orchestra pit, the Grimsley High School Auditorium was used. It has virtually no pit, so the opera had to be accompanied by piano. Ben Blozan did nearly all possible in trying to suggest on the keyboard Bedrich Smetana's vivid writing for woodwinds, brass, percussion, and gossamer strings. Conductor Pamela McDermott kept tight coordination between soloists, chorus, and accompaniment. University and conservatory productions are not slaves to the box office and are an inexpensive way to explore opera beyond the bread-and-butter Barbers, Bohèmes, and Traviatas. They give music lovers a chance to hear talented young singers on the way up.
Rising nationalism was an important force in 19th-century Prague, then part of the disparate, vast Austro-Hungarian Empire. The city's Provisional Theatre gave Czech language performances of operas by foreign composers. No native Czech opera existed until 1862, when Smetana composed The Brandenburgers in Bohemia in response to Count Jan Harrach's competition to compose a Czech opera. Some critics thought Smetana's work bore too much influence from Richard Wagner. The score of the next opera, The Bartered Bride, was infused with folk elements such as dances, furiants, polkas, etc. The opera was premiered May 30, 1866, in the Prague National Theatre. Future composer Antonin Dvorák, a member of the orchestra, was deeply influenced by Smetana's nationalist model.
Mistaken identities, a common plot device, have a strong role in The Bartered Bride. The title character, Marie, loves Jenik, a stranger in her village who is secretive about his origins. In order to borrow money, her peasant parents had signed a contract for their daughter to marry the son of a wealthy landowner, Micha, and his second wife, Hata. Kecal, the Marriage Broker, comes to carry out the contract and bribes Jenik to drop his claim to Marie. Jenik insists the contact stipulates Marie must marry the son of Micha and that her parents' repayment of the money be cancelled. Everyone supposes the painfully shy Vasek is the intended. However, Jenik is the son of Micha's first wife who had been driven away by his stepmother Hata. After much comic action at cross purposes, all ends happily with the lovers united and Vasek's running away with a traveling circus.
The voices of women mature earlier than men. Soprano Melinda Whittington was outstanding as Marie. Her diction and intonation were precise while her voice was strongly supported across its range from pianissimo to her angriest forte during her confrontation with her supposed faithless lover. Her timbre was even, smooth, and had a winning tone. Her clever, wily true lover Jenik was sung by the promising tenor Lindell O. Carter. Experience will smooth the consistency of his vocal support, but he lacked nothing in power and every word was clear. His timbre had almost the color and weight of a baritone. Tenor Charles Williamson, Jr., was an audience favorite in the challenging role of the painfully shy, stuttering Vasek. He managed fine intonation despite the affected speech impediment and extensive physical comedy connected to his role of a hapless booby. His voice was robust with a pleasing timbre. Bass David Clark was the slimmest and youngest looking marriage broker, Kecal, I had ever seen. Nonetheless his good low notes will darken with age, and his projection and pronunciation were outstanding. Solid performances were given by baritone Micheal L. Thomas and soprano Whitney Myers as Marie's parents and bass-baritone Lucas Cecil and mezzo-soprano Emily Byrne as Vasek's parents. Thomas' make-up and body language were particularly apt to portray an old man. Baritone James Williams was the Ring Master, and soprano Beth Duroy, the exotic Esmeralda, and baritone James Williams, the Circus Daredevil, were fine. Duroy's bright and vigorous delivery left one wanting to hear more. Two children, Amanda and Rachael McDermoot, were enthusiastic acrobats, readily turning one somersault after another.
Chorus master Garrett Saake had prepared the large chorus superbly. How many times can one actually hear every word of the chorus text clearly because the ensemble was in lock step? In addition, they carried out the folk dance choreography, prepared by veteran Elisa Fuchs, with alacrity. The simple, painted hanging drop cloths were effective and outstanding. The second act set, the tavern, was a triomp d'oiel, vividly suggesting a richly textured ceiling with large beams. Producer/Director David Holley's staging was dynamic and had plenty of dramatic thrust. Jenik's status as a village outsider and Vasek's complete lack social skills were emphasized. The costumes managed to suggest the region pretty well while the moth-eaten bear costume was ideal. The opera was sung in English but enunciation standards were so high the supertitles were rarely needed.