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SCRUTINY | Effervescent Bartered Bride Marks Opera By Request’s First 2024 Presentation

By Joseph So on March 12, 2024

Opera by Request & the Year of Czech Music Opera Festival performance of The Bartered Bride (Photos: Joseph So)
Opera by Request & the Year of Czech Music Opera Festival performance of The Bartered Bride L-R (clockwise: l-r: Grace Quinsey (Marenka), William Shookhoff (music director/pianist), John Holland (Kecal); l-r: David Walsh (Jenik), Grace Quinsey (Marenka), John Holland (Kecal); l-r: John Holland and William Shookhoff welcome the audience (Photos: Joseph So)

Smetana: Prodana Nevesta / Grace Quinsey, sop. (Marenka); David Walsh, ten. (Jenik); John Holland, bar. (Kecal); Alexander Cappellazzo, ten. (Vasek); Henry Irwin, bar. (Krusina); Mila Ionkova, sop. (Ludmila); Mikhail Shemet, bass-bar. (Micha); Alexandra Beley, mezz. (Hata); Catharin Carew, mezz. (Ringmaster); Thera Barclay, sop. (Esmeralda); Kyle Simpson, bar. (Acrobat); Todd Holland (Trumpeter); William Shookhoff, music director and pianist. College Street United Church, March 9, 2024. Part of the Year of Czech Music Opera Festival.

Opera by Request (OBR) calls itself “an opera company with a twist,” because its choice of what opera to perform is decided by the participants, not by the company itself. All performances are given in concert format, often with costumes and semi-staged. It offers the opportunity for singers to learn and perform new roles in a relaxed and mutually supportive milieu.

I have found OBR’s repertoire often surprisingly adventurous. I saw an excellent Der Rosenkavalier there a few years ago. I even saw parts of a Ring Cycle — I have fond memories of a Die Walkure! If memory serves, OBR has presented such great works as Marriage of Figaro, Rigoletto and Idomeneo just last year, all beloved standard repertoire works.

OBR’s first 2024 offering was the less familiar Bartered Bride by Bedrich Smetana. I have only seen it twice in my 57 years of attending live operas — once at the Metropolitan Opera at least 40 years ago starring two Canadians, Teresa Stratas as Marenka and Jon Vickers, cast against type as the stuttering Vasek. More recently, I saw it in 2000 at the Canadian Opera at the Hummingbird Centre, with Czech soprano Eva Urbanova as Marenka.

Bartered Bride was a collaboration between OBR and the Canadian Institute for Czech Music (CICM), to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the birth of its composer, Bedrich Smetana. I attended the single performance on Saturday, March 9, at the intimate and acoustically friendly College Street United Church.

L: Bedřich Smetana (Unknown photographer/Public domain); Graphic for The Bartered Bride (Courtesy of Canadian Institute for Czech Music)
L: Bedřich Smetana (Unknown photographer/Public domain); Graphic for The Bartered Bride (Courtesy of Canadian Institute for Czech Music)

The opera was sung in the original Czech with projected translations. I give a great deal of credit to the performers for learning a language for a single performance, astounding as I don’t believe that Czech is the native language of any of them. My concert companion was a Czech friend, who was impressed with how well the cast managed the language. The singers were all in costume, relatively simple but effective.

Act 3 of this opera has a circus scene, which can prove problematic in a concert performance. I was very impressed with how well it was handled. This performance featured a strong ensemble cast, vividly acted and enthusiastically sung by the singers. The title role was taken by soprano Grace Quinsey, who embodied the role wonderfully well, and she sang with rich tone, albeit with a fast vibrato. Opposite her was tenor David Walsh as a vocally and dramatically engaging Jenik.

John Holland was a lively Kecal, well sung and acted. His sturdy baritone was tested by the many extreme low notes in the role, and he managed every single one with honour. And I must single out for praise tenor Alexander Cappellazzo, in the character role of Vasek. He also sang with a fine tenor, as well as making this bumbling, stuttering character into an endearing personage. To my eyes and ears, I prefer Cappellazzo over the great Jon Vickers!

The rest of the large ensemble cast was also very fine, making it a most enjoyable evening. My kudos to Music Director William Shookhoff who worked wonders again, playing tirelessly at the piano. I am always amazed at his stamina. Compared to the Ring Cycle and that interminable Gotterdammerung, Bartered Bride must seem a bit of a lightweight!

The performance was very well attended, with the church nearly full. And I dare say the audience enjoyed the show, judging by the enthusiastic response. If you have never attended an OBR performance, I can highly recommend it. Yes, piano can never replace the grandeur of a full orchestra, but everything is done with commitment and enthusiasm. My congratulations on a job well done.

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Joseph So
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