Great moments in opera: The Bartered Bride

December 5, 2014

Bedřich Smetana’s Prodaná nevěsta (The Bartered Bride) was written in the 1860s, and was the first Czech opera to find a worldwide audience — although it took about 20 years following its Czech premiere, and a few translations into German and French, for it to finally catch the ear of the public. It’s an immensely likable piece, with music that is lovely and lively, in a folk-music idiom, and a slight but enjoyable story to tell. Although it is staged fairly frequently and has an extensive discography, I had not heard it until just a few weeks months ago, when I decided to make it the next entry in this ongoing series of unpopular posts.

The story is set in a little Czech village where a young woman, Mařenka (or Maria, in the German version), stares down the prospect of an arranged marriage to a man about whom she knows nothing — save that he is not the man whom she loves. The latter is Jeník, a handsome fellow, not from those parts, and a bit of a layabout. I’ll not belabour all the machinations of the plot, which involve, among other things, a marriage broker, a circus bear, a clutch of village dances, and a wonderfully ambiguous marriage contract. In the end all comes out right.

Clips of this opera are few and far between on YouTube, but here are a few. Perhaps the most popular bit of music from The Bartered Bride is the orchestral overture. Personally, it doesn’t do much for me, but I seem to be in a minority. Here is Jiří Bělohlávek leading the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra:

Next we have a section in which the village matchmaker, who will get a fee if Mařenka’s arranged marriage goes through, tries to persuade her paramour Jeník to forget about her. This is a funny clip because the video features Fritz Wunderlich and Kurt Bohme, but the audio features Fritz Wunderlich and Gottlob Frick. Needless to say, they don’t quite line up, but the match is closer than you might expect. English subtitles. I wouldn’t say this is a “great moment” in the strict sense, but it does give a sense of the opera’s flavour:

Here is another clip, featuring two great Canadian singers: Teresa Stratas and Jon Vickers. Stratas sings Mařenka and Vickers sings Vasek, the man whom she is to marry. This scene shows their first meeting: she knows who he is, but he does not know who she is. She tries to convince him that his intended is a nasty piece of work, and that he would be much better with another village girl. Oddly, this is sung in English, and I believe you can also add English subtitles by clicking on the [CC] button at the bottom of the video.

I’ve enjoyed getting acquainted with this opera, and I think I’ll listen to it again.

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