Story: Lukas and Vendulka have loved each other since childhood, but his parents wanted him to marry another woman. Years later, wealthy farmer Lukas, now a widower with an infant, renews his affection for Vendulka, even smiling at her at his late wife’s wake.
The two of them want to marry, but her father says that would be a bad idea, since both of them are known for their fiery tempers and stubborn nature and are just too much alike for a marriage to work. Having said his piece, though, he grants his permission. Lukas longs to kiss Vendulka immediately, but she refuses until they are married, saying to do otherwise would disrespect his late wife.
Furious, Lukas drowns his sorrows at the local pub, kissing freely and humiliating Vendulka. She runs off to the forest to live with smugglers, but soon decides that isn’t the best idea. She returns home, Lukas begs forgiveness and they finally ‘clinch’ the deal.
Highlights: The Financial Times of London called The Kiss “the runaway success of the 2010 festival” when it had its premiere as a co-production of the Wexford Festival Opera. Now, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis presents the first American staging of this lush, buoyant and humorous work in more than 20 years.
Was it worth the wait? Absolutely. The music by Bedrich Smetana is consistently upbeat and harmonious, bringing to mind his Moldau symphonic poem and doubtless The Bartered Bride and others of his operas. The libretto by Eliska Krasnohorska, based on a short story by Karolina Svetla, is witty, charming and amusing throughout, something writer Jan Smaczny alludes to in his program notes. In other words, The Kiss is the bomb.
Other Info: Conductor Anthony Barrese leads members of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra in a spirited reading of Smetana’s tuneful traipse through the 19th century Czech countryside. On stage, director Michael Gieleta keeps a merry pace with his fun-loving cast, which conveys the rich comic current that ripples through the story as well as displaying full, hearty voices which accentuate Smetana’s satisfying score.
The set designed by James Macnamara utilizes a series of plywood-looking vertical structures behind the players which allows flexibility for entrances and exits. It also serves beautifully for a sunrise ingeniously devised by lighting designer Christopher Akerlind in the second act.
Fabio Toblini dresses everyone in the attire of village folks as well as their Sunday finest for the funeral, and choreographer Sean Curran puts the amiable cast through some amusing moves.
Corinne Winters, who plays Vendulka, is a former Gerdine Young Artist who recently made a critically acclaimed European debut as Violetta in the English National Opera’s production of La Traviata. Hearing her phenomenal soprano soar into the rafters at the Loretto-Hilton Center, it’s easy to understand why, She handles comic aspects of her part capably as well.
Tenor Garrett Sorenson is a fabulous foil for Vendulka as the miffed Lukas, chafing for that elusive kiss while clumsily cavorting on stage to high comic effect. His singing is clear enough to convey Lukas’ petulance and frustration to the amusement of the audience.
Certainly a crowd-pleaser is bass-baritone Matthew Burns, who milks every ounce of laughter from his role as Paloucky Otec, Vendulka’s father and a man of mysterious ailments that increase or diminish depending on his mood. Burns is a pip, browbeating the two hapless nuns charged with Paloucky’s care while frequently singing out choruses of “I told you so” to any and all within earshot.
Elizabeth Batton serves well as Vendulka’s kindly aunt Martinka, Charles Owen is the agreeable smuggler Matous, baritone Matthew Worth displays strong vocal talent as Lukas’s brother-in-law and well-meaning best friend Tomes and soprano Emily Duncan-Brown is well cast as Barce, a servant of Paloucky and good friend to Vendulka, shining on her aria near the end of Act II.
The Kiss is hardly a deep and probing work of art. What it is, though, is a light-hearted and engaging romp filled with Smetana’s signature style with a melody.
Opera: The Kiss
Company: Opera Theatre of Saint Louis
Venue: Browning Mainstage, Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road
Dates: June 20, 22, 26, 28
Tickets: $25-$128; contact 961-0644 or ExperienceOpera.org
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Ken Howard