in: Reviews

July 25, 2014

Enchanting Barter Enraptured

by

Nicole Percifield as Marenka and Ethan Bremner as Vasek (Chris McKenzie photo)

Nicole Percifield as Marenka and Ethan Bremner as Vasek (Chris McKenzie photo)

Boston Midsummer Opera’s production of Bedřich Smetana’s The Bartered Bride was, in a single word: splendid.

Knowing the Tsai Performance Center at Boston University well, I was slightly skeptical about its capacity to support a quality aural experience; the acoustics, quite frankly, are rather atrocious (in general that is). The hall is covered with soft surfaces and is not just unresponsive but feels as though it actually sucks the sound right out. In fact, I have heard rumors that the hall sometimes utilizes electronics to create a false acoustic signature: *gasp*! But according to Artistic Director Susan Davenny Wyner [BMInt interview here], that reverberation system was not going to be used.

Call me crazy, but the sound was well balanced, clear, and quite present in the hall. I cannot speak to the experience of the musicians on and off stage but what the audience heard was an all-surrounding sound scape.

Honestly, in The Bartered Bride the story really doesn’t matter: boy and girl are in love, girl arranged to marry another, second boy is dull and dim-witted, main boy sad but is not seen for who he is, main boy is sly and tricks people, even the girl, throw in the dichotomy between love and the eventual prevail of true love and trickery. There you have it. Nevertheless, it is light of heart and dances around the edges: perfect for the midsummer.

Though it became one of Smetana’s most popular works, he himself scoffed it off as “child’s play.” He had written it to prove himself capable of a more fair weather style, appealing to one’s light chuckle rather than reaching for a Wagnerian weightiness. He succeeded! The notes fly off the page in a whimsical manner. Though one hears a strong folk influence, only a single portion of the opera is authentically “folk.” Snappy motivic segments, syncopated rhythm, diatonic drones, and sometimes modal movement gives you that authentic sound, setting the tone quite literally to a 19thcentury Bohemian village.

It is never safe to assume, for assumptions flew all around me prior to this production, each one dashed from moment to moment. I had never experienced a Boston Midsummer Opera production before nor did I know their organization’s mission all too intimately, and given the venue (again, another assumption dashed) I had assumed there would a few good singers of some renown and the rest would be students left in Boston for the summer. Incorrect was I. The entire cast sang with gusto and appeal, having been cast with an appropriate flair, utilizing some characters in two roles, whether they were minor singing roles, chorus duties, or acting activities. The lead roles, Jeník (the bartering fiancé) and Mařenka (the bartered bride) played by Eric Barry and Nicole Percifield respectively, were precious and convincing. Eric Barry’s sound lives just above his hard palate, gliding over a tensionless neck, and soars through his range with the smallest of effort. Nicole Percifield possesses an instrument like few others. Imagine her voice as a physical object; picture it as a complete item, round and energetic, only needing her breath to move it, not to create it, a constant dark velvety red. If I were to own a vinyl record player (and I should) I would like it to be Nicole Percifield gracing that experience. Uffda, as we like to say in the Scandinavian Midwest (my homeland).

This is a large cast opera with few roles that oversee the others in terms of importance. A few words about each should suffice. Ethan Bremner, our Vašek (the arranged husband), graced the stage with a full sound from the bottom up, showing that all edges of his sound were confident: and his manipulation of his “st-st-stuttering” was fantastic. Jason Budd, a true basso cantabile who possesses a sound that will come to the fore of any musical texture, played our legal “advisor” Kecal with vocal ping and precision of diction. Only some rhythmic issues prevailed his character’s confidence. Krušina (Mařenka’s father) played by Eric Downs has the difficult role of flip-flopping his opinion, and Downs offered that up on his plate of low, insular, and somewhat muffled vocal production, cut with convincing and assured ease. Mařenka’s mother, Ludmilla, played by the charming Teresa Eickel, allowed her voice to shift tone and color in order to deepen the somewhat sarcastic role. Vašek and (SPOILER ALERT!) Jeník’s father and mother (stepmother of Jeník) came late in the production and offered a good interpretation of the material they were given; they sing very few lines basically, but well I might add.

The overture set the energy level for the entire opera quite high, the platers unfaltering for most of the performance; collectively the orchestra was above average, well-rehearsed, and quite attentive to Wyner’s, though at times, the vocalists and the orchestra were not rhythmically together. There are many syncopated patterns throughout, fast notes, and quick offbeats that are quite difficult to navigate. As side note: the overture is too long Mr. Smetana.

Nicole Percifield (in center at table) is Marenka (Chris McKenzie photo)

Nicole Percifield (in center at table) is Marenka (Chris McKenzie photo)

Most impressive was the visual artistic team: Antonio Ocampo-Guzman (Stage Director), Kellie Shea and Laura Lobo (Choreographers), Stephen Dobay (Scenic Designer), John Cuff (Lighting Designer), and Elisabetta Polito (Costume Designer). Bravo. Bravo. At intermission I consulted with a friend and confessed that I had difficulty finding myself back in the real world. Their production was illuminating, spell binding, and quasi-mystical. With a stage not built for opera productions they were able to create a depth of scene through creative manipulation of lighting on top of opposing shades painted on the objects illuminated. I can’t quite explain but it was a sort of pastel technicolor experience, creating what seemed like acres of land in front of you. The costumes shed a degree of authenticity, certainly fooling the layman (myself included). Direction for staging and acting was convincing and assured, offering nothing in the way of “spectacular” but wonderful nonetheless. The chorus of dancers, young folks from the Central Mass Dance Academy, gave an applaud-able effort, assimilating into the fold of the narrative with moments of foreground flair as well as submission. They had the audience on the edge of their seat with anticipation and laughter.

The narrative itself is actually quite brilliant, moving in short scenes, with nothing too elongated, punctuated by wonderfully bombastic chorus interjections. This propels the drama and energy throughout, pulling the audience deep and shallow, manipulating their investment with the characters and the narrative. It is simply a good and light-hearted drama.

When you attend, and you must, please allow yourself to live in the scenery and drama the Boston Midsummer Opera has created for you. It is not just one aspect that made this production such a darling experience but it was each component, each member of the team that has brought this Boston summer a moment of comedic uplifting; as we know, our midsummers can be lethargic, and The Bartered Bride is everything but!

Repeating Sunday afternoon.

Samuel Kjellberg is a Minneapolis-Saint Paul native; conductor, percussionist, and vocalist, all with a dash of philosophy, he currently resides in Boston while pursuing a MM in Choral Conducting at Boston University.

3 Comments

  1. Thank you for the wonderful review of a fantastic operatic experience. I heard it on opening night, and found the performance to be as good as opera can get. And particular thanks for commenting on the acoustics. I could hear every word – something very rare in modern performances.

    The acoustics at Tsai are much maligned, but as Samuel Kjellberg correctly points out, when subject to careful listening they can be quite successful. Originally a lecture room with a low ceiling, the space was opened up by Chris Jaffe, who removed the false ceiling both in the hall and above the stage. He also installed one of his early acoustic enhancement systems, which he called ERES, for Early Reflection Enhancement System. Increasing the room volume was a great idea, but the ERES system sounded horrible. The system was designed with the assumption – still current today – that when acoustics are less than wonderful the solution is to add early reflections, preferably from the side. The assumption is simply incorrect. In most venues that are not gigantic there are too many early reflections, not too few. The stage is deliberately made highly reflective, and often a reflective stage shell is added for music performances. Paine Hall at Harvard and Slosberg at Brandies are typical, and unfortunate, in this way. Williams Hall at NEC is a good example of how much better an absorptive stage can sound.

    The Tsai is not an exception. Jaffe provided a stage shell for the music performance orchestra that is still, alas, in use. But not for this opera! We got to hear the hall with the stage open to its full volume, and with a semi-absorptive set. Suddenly the hall comes alive. There is just enough late reverberation in the hall to support the singers without compromising the clarity. It is well to remember that almost without exception European opera houses (and chamber music venues) were quite dry, with absorptive stages. Even the large ones – like the Bolshoi or La Scala – were very dry. Wagner insisted in his book that opera is drama, not an excuse for listening to music. Drama requires an acoustic connection between the audience and singers that is broken when there are too many early reflections. Bayreuth works because the absorptive stage, the high ceiling, and the unusual side walls eliminate first-order reflections, and the orchestra cover keeps the balance on the singers.

    Some years after Jaffe’s renovation a new hall manager gave Steve Barbar and myself a call to see if our LARES system, which enhances late reverberation, could improve matters. Long story short – it does. Some 20 years later the system is still operational, and is used when appropriate by the BU orchestra and others. (I only wish they would not use that shell.) Although I believe the system was not in use for the opera, if it was in use and correctly adjusted you would not hear it (until you turned it off.)

    LARES has been installed in a great many venues, often without public announcement. Shortly after the Tsai installation it was installed in the Staatsoper Berlin and the Amsterdam Musiektheater, where it still operates every day. Far from being anathema, conductors like Barenboim found it so essential that when it is not working properly I immediately get a call to fix it. Both in Amsterdam and Berlin the system operated for years before some expert listener figured out that the sound was too good to be true.

    Thanks again for the great review.

    Comment by David Griesinger — July 28, 2014 at 8:23 am

  2. Whether the system was in play or not, the singers enunciated so well that everything could be understood, a pleasure not often encountered, even with English texts. There was great enthusiasm and accuracy by the singers and the exemplary orchestra. Brava conductor!

    Comment by Martin Cohn — July 28, 2014 at 8:32 am

  3. Susan Davenny Wyner had this so say on the subject in her BMInt interview:

    Will you be able to get someone to turn on the reverberation system for Tsai? It sounds so dry without that aid.

    No artificial sound system. Yes, the Tsai acoustics are dry but stage designer Stephen Dobay and Antonio have made efforts to create some reflective surfaces to help voices project. Part of the joy of music is hearing the individual qualities of singers’ voices and the actual colors and textures of the instruments. So unless a composer asks for artificial amplification, I’m inclined to work with the acoustics and sounds as they actually are, and make the performance vivid, evocative, colorful and engaging with the palette we have. We all adore good acoustics of course, but the down side of artificial reverb (even as far as it has come technically) is that it tends to homogenize and gloss over the sound.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — July 28, 2014 at 10:03 am

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