The product, ironically, of a time in composer Bedřich Smetana’s life when his personal life was at a low ebb—his deafness was complete and he had lost an important job as a result—“The Kiss” is a resolutely sunny and good-natured confection of an opera with sparring lovers (a la “Much Ado About Nothing”), a hilariously crotchety father, nice-guy smugglers, and a happy ending for all. It’s filled with Smetana’s captivating melodies and lively dance-inspired rhythms and features a heroine with surprisingly modern-sounding attitudes toward the opposite sex and marriage, given that the opera premiered in 1876.
Chalk that up to the fact that the libretto is by a female author. Alžběta Pechová (writing as Eliška Krásnohorská*) wrote a total of four operas for Smetana, including “The Kiss.” “Entering into the world of these operas,” writes director Michael Gieleta in the OTSL program, “one is immediately transported into the realm of Mother Earth: into the countryside milieu of a household setting, motherhood, fertility, domestic relationships, betrothals and marriages, ill-balanced families, male faults, and female endurance.” The libretti show “the genuineness, the unquestionable emotional honesty” that comes from first-hand experience; something that “is seldom encountered in operatic portrayals penned by male librettists.” “The Kiss” looks at the quarreling lovers from a female point of view, in short, and it’s not a submissive one.
Lukáš, a wealthy young farmer, had always loved Vendulka, but his parents forced him to marry another. Now a widower and orphan with a baby son, Lukáš returns to ask for Vendulka’s hand from her cynical and curmudgeonly father Palouckŷ. Papa warns that the lovers are too much alike and too stubborn to make a match, but things are going well enough until Lukáš asks for a kiss to seal the betrothal. Vendulka refuses out of consideration for the deceased wife, the argument escalates, and by the end of the first act Lukáš is off getting tanked with a couple of local lasses, Vendulka has run off with her aunt Martinka to join a band of jolly smugglers, and Palouckŷ gloats over the whole mess.
All ends happily, but not before Lukáš eats a considerable helping of humble pie and both he and Vendulka admit they might have been just a bit hasty.
The Opera Theatre production could hardly be better. Soprano Corinne Winters (who has done such fine work as Mélisande and Micaëla in the last two seasons) carries the bulk of the opera as Vendulka, convincingly portraying a wide range of emotions from joy to despair with a radiant, clear voice. Tenor Garrett Sorenson (who sang Hoffman so well back in 2008) brings that same impressive tenor to the role of Lukáš.
Bass-baritone Matthew Burns has demonstrated his flair for comedy before on the OTSL stage, so it’s no surprise that his Palouckŷ gets so many laughs. He looks a bit young for the part, though.
The young servant Barče only has one aria of any consequence—the “Lark Song” from Act II—but it’s a doozy, filled with flashy vocal leaps and pyrotechnics. Soprano Emily Duncan-Brown’s performance was a true showstopper—lovely and seemingly effortless.
Baritone Matthew Worth is the mellow voice of reason as Lukáš’s brother-in-law Tomeš, mezzo Elizabeth Batton a fine comic presence as Martinka, and bass-baritone Charles Z. Owen roguishly charming as the smuggler Matouš, whose merry band brought to mind the comic pirates of Penzance.
James Macnamara’s set has an oddly artificial look for an opera filled with so many lovely musical evocations of nature. The stage floor is covered in something that looks a great deal like Astroturf and the moveable backdrop consists of long, rectangular wooden panels that wouldn’t look out of place in a high-end bar. Still, it works well enough, and Fabio Toblini’s colorful Bohemian peasant costumes add to the cheerful look of the piece.
Michael Gielata’s direction handles focus and stage movement nicely. His decision to accompany Smetana’s cheerful overture with a pantomime sequence showing the funeral of Lukáš’s wife struck me as oddly discordant, though. Conductor Anthony Barrese brings Smetana’s lively, tune-filled score to brilliant life.
“The Kiss” has one more performance on Friday, June 28, at 8 PM at the Loretto-Hilton Center on the Webster University campus. It’s a sunny, lovable piece that only someone as crabby as Palouckŷ could fail to enjoy. For more information: experienceopera.org.
*Why, I have no idea.