Smetana wrote Prodaná nevěsta (“The Bartered Bride”) as a light Czech folk piece in a playful reply to critics who said that his music was too Wagnerian, or too German for that matter – something not compatible with the growing Czech national consciousness in the period he composed it (1863–66), even though he only showed mild interest in the Czech cause. Ironically, the long-standing success on international opera stages of what today is considered the Czech national opera may be partly owed to a German translation of Karel Sabina’s excellent libretto – not only because German is more widely understood, but also because it feels natural even to modern audiences that usually prefer to hear a score as close to the original as possible. If one likes the thought that all music is language, this feeling that the German fits the music like a glove may have to do with the fact that Smetana was christened Friedrich and learned Czech only as an adult. Those in search for a more scientific answer learned at the 2011 Styriarte festival performances of Die verkaufte Braut that the version given was based on a piano score to which Smetana himself had added a German text in a translation by a certain Emanuel Züngel, something that had been waiting at an antiques dealer for no less than conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt to discover it.

The Volksoper’s new production by Helmut Baumann is based on a more recent translation by German musicologist Kurt Honolka that is a little piece of art in itself, but the way in which it was sung and acted out often conjured up the adjectives used by the critics of the 1866 Prague world première: empty and tacky. It is known that Caroline Melzer (Marie) is no stage animal, but Volksoper dramaturgy (Helene Sommer) being so sloppy as to leave her seemingly undirected for long stretches came as a bewildering surprise, especially when the few directions there were appeared to be out of place – Marie, the mild-mannered country beauty with a strong character, is not someone to hop on a table or strike one or two ludicrous poses like right out of any Carmen finale in her confrontation scene with Hans. I would have expected Melzer to make up for this with clear tone and phrasing, but while she sounded a bit like a Marschallin with a weak top in Act I, her intonation became increasingly shaky as the evening wore on, something that the spare, translucent score for some of Marie’s music mercilessly exposed (although it has to be said that the fully orchestrated Act III aria didn’t sound any better).

Hans (Matthias Klink) and Wenzel (Paul Schweinester) were decent by the house’s tenor standards, but while the latter was lucky with the director’s take on his role (he was not presented as the usual village idiot, but as the victim of his mother’s dominance), Klink was more or less left to his own devices, though that worked better for him than for his lady. The role of Kecal, the marriage broker, is supposedly a comic gift for any buffo bass, but Andreas Daum was too busy signalling with his hands what he was singing about in a wobbly voice when not delivering surprisingly strong low notes. The comprimario roles gave mostly under-par performances, with the low point being the Act III sextet in which Marie’s and Hans’ parents and Kecal implore Marie to reconsider her plans. Luckily, the appearance of circus troupe with jugglers and acrobats in funny outfits counterbalanced that a bit and the same can be said of the well-choreographed chorus and dance scenes; but while this little sideshow adds a bit of colour to the opera, the focus should be on the leading couple.

Compensating somewhat for the disappointing events on stage, conductor Enrico Dovico and the orchestra did an admirable job in the pit and the playing sparked right from the overture’s famously bustling strings; so at least those who had never heard the work before should have gotten a good idea of why this opera is so popular. It was pretty much left to the orchestra to tell the story through music – and what a story we heard from this playing – as the production hardly ever managed to put across the protagonists’ feelings. A woman who fights for more happiness than an arranged marriage can provide and a man fighting with wit and tricks for his right and his love should make for a much more entertaining and perhaps poignant evening, even if set in nothing but a white barn whose main feature is that it lets the sun or moon shine in.