Smetana – love, intrigue, travelling circus, beer

When I say Smetana, you’ll get it: Moldova. But the composer who wrote the exuberantly romantic, patriotic symphonic poem, a favourite of classical music radio stations, was also open to folksy merriment. Now at Müpa Budapest, we can laugh and thrill our way through this comedy full of amusing twists, turns and fresh melodies.

Bedrich Smetana, like his contemporaries, was raised in the tradition of German music and only later returned to the inspiration of the Czech countryside. He worked as a teacher and pianist in Prague, writing frivolous salon music, but felt he would not be able to achieve artistic fulfilment here. At the age of 32, in 1856, he travelled to Sweden to broaden his horizons and lived there for five years as principal conductor of the Gothenburg orchestra. It was during this period that he began to compose large-scale symphonic works, inspired primarily by the music of his mentor, Franz Liszt, and Wagner. During a visit to Weimar in 1857, he became aware of the modern comic opera genre, which was intended to counterpoint Wagner’s tragic music dramas. A comment by a Viennese conductor that the Czechs were incapable of composing their own music prompted Smetana to vow that he would create Czech national music. And so he did.

He moved home in 1861 on the news of the imminent opening of the Provincial Theatre in Prague, and in response to a competition he composed his historical opera The Brandenburgers in Bohemia, which won him the first prize – but even then he was already thinking of a future farce opera. The music for The Bartered Bride, which included Czech dance motifs, was written in stages: 16 bars in 1862, eight more six months later, and the overture – unusually not the last, as had long been the custom (think of the overture to Don Giovanni, which Mozart began composing just hours before the premiere). The piano version was performed at a concert in November 1863, almost three years before the opera was premiered. (The overture has often been played in concert halls on its own ever since.) The Bartered Bride premiered in 1866, but it was not until 1870 that it reached its final form, after which it became popular both at home and abroad.

According to the Müpa Budapest:

“With our present knowledge, the play, with its vivid, lively, dynamic music, its colourful grand scenes and its exuberant dance movements, can be interpreted as the ancestor of the musical. So it is no coincidence that Gábor Hollerung asked Vajk Szente, famous for his spectacular, dynamic musicals, to direct the production. BDZ’s workshop has dusted down the piece, and the brand new Hungarian version that is being produced brings the story into the world of Menzel films without moving away from Smetana’s original intentions.”

The Bartered Bride follows in the beaumarchais tradition of what today would be called a romcom: a story of quarrels, betrayals, complications, big revelations, with lovers, intriguers and an audience of a whole village hungry for scandal and gossip. Short-lived, relief-ending disappointments, misunderstandings, vows of love and ‘eternal wrath’ follow in quick succession, and at one point the whole madness arrives in the unspoilt czech village: Esmeralda, the Spanish dancer, an Indian sword-swallower and a dancing bear – courtesy of a travelling circus. Perhaps it’s not spoiling things to tell you: the story of young lovers Vašek and Mařenka gets a huge happy ending after a series of pitfalls, leaving the ambitious parents and the scheming matchmaker stranded.

Let’s root for them, laugh together and join the chorus in singing the second act’s exhilarating, hearty Czech beer song: ‘This beer is certainly a gift from heaven’! A staged performance of The Bartered Bride by Smetana will be at Müpa Budapest on 26 February.

Article: Zsuzsanna Deák

Translation: Nóra Fehér