Edinburgh Festival: The Two Widows - Edinburgh Festival Theatre, 11 August 2008
It was the title that put me off. Specifically, the Widow bit. It has that sickly whiff of chocolate box and cheese. And Smetana, hmmm. I had to be dragged along, and I certainly wasn't tempted to dig out the music before seeing it. What tempted the Edinburgh Festival to pull it from the rarely-performed box is a mystery - perhaps they were hoping for some easy sponsorship?
And the music - when Smetana said he wanted to forego uncouth Czech nationalism and prove he could do the posh French stuff, he meant it. It's music with the crusts cut off.
Surprisingly, Scottish National Opera managed to concoct an excellent evening's entertainment from these unpromising ingredients.
Liberties have been taken in the cause of livening things up. The English translation is often hilarious but strays some way from the literal. The most effective stage business - a running gag where actors behind a fake frame mirror what's happening on stage - is nothing to do with the plot, even by implication. But the orchestra kept up a cracking pace, characterisations were detailed and thoughtful, and the one-room set with its eyesore 'bohemian' wallpaper and hunting trophies was ingeniously transformed from indoors to outdoors with the help of a few potted plants and the power of auto suggestion.
Kate Valentine sparkled as the man-hungry widow Katrina, and though I didn't buy the last minute transformation to golden-hearted matchmaker, I think this is a problem with the writing rather than her performance.
Jane Irwin made the frosty Anežka sympathetic, with her poignant aria the only moment the opera gets more than a millimetre deep.
The men, Nicholas Folwell's blustering gamekeeper and David Pomeroy's ardent suitor Ladislav, were perfectly adequate but could only trail in their wake.
Francesco Corti seemed to have an iron grip over the orchestra, so I was surprised that they drifted apart from the singers as often as they did, most noticeably with the chorus. Perhaps they were all just dazzled by the wallpaper.