PRODANÁ NEVĔSTA (THE BARTERED BRIDE)
Comic opera in 3 acts
Libretto: Karel Sabina
First performed: Provisional Theatre, Prague, 30 May 1866
For a small country, the Czech Republic punches above its weight musically. Dvořák’s Rusalka and Janáček’s operas are in the repertoire of many opera houses worldwide.
The founding father of Czech music is Bedřich Smetana, whose comedy The Bartered Bride was the first Czech opera to reach 100 performances within his lifetime, and became a fixture of the National Theatre in Prague.
The Bartered Bride is his second opera. Smetana wanted to compose opera that would speak to the Czech people, as Glinka did for the Russians with A Life for the Tsar and Ruslan and Lyudmila.
Most of Smetana’s nine operas draw on Czech history (popular uprisings, prophecies of the founding of Prague), legend, or rural life.
His first opera, Braniboři v Čechách (The Brandenburgers in Bohemia), was a success, a serious historical opera about the Holy Roman Empire’s occupation of Bohemia. His contemporaries, though, considered him a dangerous modernist, part of the Liszt/Wagner circle.
Smetana composed The Bartered Bride “to spite those who accused me of being Wagnerian and incapable of doing anything in a lighter vein” – and, like Peter Cornelius (composer of Der Barbier von Bagdad), write a modern comic opera as a contrast to Wagner’s mythical epics.
The opera is set in a small Czech village, where peasants dance and drink beer, and the arrival of a circus – complete with bear and American Indian – is a major event.
Mařenka’s father, the peasant Krušina, signed a contract promising his daughter to the landowner Mícha’s son Vašek, a stammering booby – but she loves Jeník, much to the consternation of the Kecal, the marriage broker. Why, though, does Jeník give up his claim on Mařenka for 300 gulden, on the proviso that she can only marry Mícha’s son, and why is he so pleased with the deal?
The opera is a delight, combining catchy tunes with distinctively Smetanian orchestration: brilliant writing for strings (particularly in the famous Overture), unusual use of percussion and folk instruments (drums, cymbals, triangles, tambourines). In this, Smetana proves his early ambition to be “a Liszt in technique and a Mozart in composition”.
Rossini and Mozart hover in the background; the Kecal is a Rossinian buffo, while Mařenka is a Czech cousin of Rossini’s clever, independent young misses. The comic duet where the Kecal tries to buy Jeník off, promising him a wealthy widow (with plenty of ducats!), is one of the opera’s highlights, and my favourite piece in it.
There’re melancholy and tenderness, too – Mařenka and Jeník’s duet at the start of the opera, where he tells her how he left his father’s home after his mother died…
…and Mařenka’s aria in Act III, when she learns that Jeník bartered her
Elsewhere, Smetana’s music is beautifully lyrical – in the one-sided love duet in Act II, where Mařenka (in disguise) tells Jeník to beware his new bride, who plans to kill him…
…and the sextet in Act III.
The score is full of toe-tapping dances: the chorus that opens and the polka that closes the first act, the furiant, and the Dance of the Comedians (which Victor Borge used for one of his sketches).
Dance rhythms, Smetana wrote, gave the score “a popular character, because the plot…is taken from village life and demands a national treatment”.
It’s surprising that the opera, with its wealth of melody and engaging story, struggled to achieve popularity both in Prague and in the rest of the world. The first performance was a failure, partly because many people were out of town, and because the Austro-Prussian War had broken out; those who remained were in no mood for a comedy on a swelteringly hot evening when German troops might invade Bohemia at any moment.
Smetana revised the opera over the next few years. For the final version, he turned the two-act work into a three-act opera, with sung recitative replacing the original dialogue. Czech audiences enthusiastically welcomed the new version, but the rest of the world was less convinced. The opera was performed in Russia in 1871, but critics preferred Offenbach. It wasn’t until after Smetana’s death, in the 1890s, that the opera entered the repertoire of foreign opera houses, often in German translation. Mahler championed the work; he introduced it to Hamburg, Vienna and New York, and quoted the overture in his First Symphony.
Smetana played down the opera’s success, calling it “a toy… Composing it was mere child’s play, written straight off the reel.” He sold himself short; The Bartered Bride is a little gem of an opera.
This Czech certainly won’t bounce (all the more reason not to defenestrate him!).
Smetana’s music is easy to fall in love with, and I look forward to hearing more of his operas.
1981 film, starring Gabriela Beňačková-Čápová (Mařenka), Peter Dvorský (Jeník), Miroslav Kopp (Vašek) and Richard Novák (Kecal), conducted by Zděnek Košler. This is the version you want: it’s in Czech, it’s well sung and acted, and the production is charming.
This production is also available on CD. If you’re after a recording in translation, there are versions in German (Rudolf Kempe for EMI) and English (Charles Mackerras for Chandos).