In much the same way as Mozart and the Strauss family for Austrians or Swan Lake for Russians, Smetana’s second operaThe Bartered Bride is beaten into Czech schoolchildren as “Our National Heritage” – ironically so, since the composer had been lambasted as insufficiently Czech and too Wagnerian. How, then, to stage such a work to keep the heritage alive without being a museum piece? Particularly given that this isn’t a searing work of serious historical drama but a frothy romantic comedy?

Alžběta Poláčková (Mařenka - left) © Hana Smejkalová
Alžběta Poláčková (Mařenka - left)
© Hana Smejkalová

Prague National Theatre changes its production of The Bartered Bride relatively often, which makes Magdalena Švecová’s 2008 staging (their twentieth) something of a survivor. Švecová goes for a kind of hybrid between traditional and modern: costumes are straight out of the folklore storybooks, whereas the setting and movement direction are modern. Petr Matásek’s sets are minimal, based on a harvest theme: this Bartered Bride has moved out of the village square and into the surrounding fields, which Matásek creates cleverly and stylishly with a set of curved panels faced with stubble which turn into walls, carpets or slides. Zuzana Přidalová’s costumes are pure eye candy: Mařenka – clearly the prettiest girl in town – is dressed as the Czech equivalent of “Queen of the May” – or, rather, “Queen of the Harvest”, with flouncy dress and headgear made of harvest sheaves. Jeník and the other village swains are waistcoated and clad in their festive finest; the older generation, generally speaking, look silly. The circus troupe’s sneak preview of their show is a proper piece of stage magic with acrobatics performed by a combination of people and stuffed dummies. Ladislava Košíková’s choreography is extremely watchable and executed with verve: yes, we’re watching traditional country dances, but the dozen dancers are operating at a level that’s many gears up from a village knees-up.

The Bartered Bride © Hana Smejkalová
The Bartered Bride
© Hana Smejkalová

The National Theatre orchestra members have clearly imbibed this music with their mother’s milk, and it gushes forth with easy enthusiasm. Smetana is relentlessly upbeat for most of the proceedings, with plenty of folk dance numbers and only the odd pause for a lyrical lament or a romantic duet, but the orchestra plays with such exuberance that it’s impossible not to be won over. The exuberance is matched by the chorus, the contest between love and beer that opens Act 2 being particularly entertaining (spoiler: beer wins). But conductor Jaroslav Kyzlink is successful in reining in his troops when required, most tellingly so for the main slow interlude, the wonderful sextet in Act 3 when everyone is reassuring the heartbroken Mařenka that all will be for the best.

Circus troupe in Act 3 © Hana Smejkalová
Circus troupe in Act 3
© Hana Smejkalová

Unfortunately, the orchestral exuberance comes somewhat at the expense of the soloists, all of whom suffer from periods where they struggle to make themselves heard – some more so than others. In the title role, Alžběta Poláčková is the pick of the bunch, with a warm and rounded tone, enough power to cut through all but the loudest orchestral accompaniment and a good line in flashing eyes and arched eyebrows. Peter Berger’s Jeník acts the part well and has good chemistry with Poláčková, but his singing seems very much held in check until the final denouement: there’s an argument to be made for this being part of the development of the character, but it made for some disappointment in Act 1. As the ghastly marriage broker Kecal, Zdeněk Plach blusters appropriately and sings strongly enough out of the middle of his range, but was close to inaudible in the faster low buffo passages. As the stammering village idiot Vašek, Josef Moravec impressed with a warm and earnest tenor, albeit making less than one might of the comic stammer.

Zuzana Kopřivová (Esmeralda, centre) © Hana Smejkalová
Zuzana Kopřivová (Esmeralda, centre)
© Hana Smejkalová

Ultimately, though, The Bartered Bride stands or falls not by its individual elements but by whether it touches us a whole. Frothy and trivial as it may seem on the surface, the opera is popular because it has plenty to touch our hearts: about family, about love, about trust and estrangement. My personal jury was out for the first two acts, but Act 3 won me over, making this performance a delightful experience.

***11