An Operatic Cultural Property: Smetana in Berlin

I just attended a performance of Smetana’s opera The Bartered Bride at the Berlin Staatsoper (remaining performances on 26 April, 20 June, and 23 June 2012). Originally performed in 1866, this opera is a prime example of what central Europeans call Folklorismus: high culture drawing on traditional genres and conventions for its form while taking the peasant culture of the national past as its subject matter. In contrast to the ideology of heritage as the preservation of tradition in its authentic form, Folklorismus treats tradition as the raw material from which a self-aware culture may be constructed. Folklorismus as a concept is thus less naive than heritage about the activities of intellectuals and policymakers, and it does not condemn them as destructive or inauthentic. But like heritage, Folklorismus tends to posit tradition itself as inert, unselfconscious, and clearly demarcated from cosmopolitan modernity.

In Smetana’s opera, the setting of a generic “Bohemian village” frames the classic comic plot in which a young couple who want to get married outwit the older generation and manage at the end to have it all: love, money, and parental consent. Local color inflects the story with the introduction of a marriage broker and the supposedly traditional custom of bride purchase. More broadly, local color provides the musical and scenic decor: the drama is set during a single day at a village feast complete with dancing, embroidered costumes, a choral ode to beer, and a traveling circus. The score draws heavily on Bohemian dance rhythms.

So we are given all the familiar Bohemian cultural properties, in the scenic sense. Perhaps it comes as no surprise that the celebrated composer of this emblematic Czech national opera, Bedřich Smetana, was christened Friedrich Smetana. He was educated in German, received the cosmopolitan musical formation typical of Prague in the 1840s, and began to use the Czech language regularly only in the 1860s, when he returned from six years in Sweden to establish his reputation in a Bohemia newly buzzing with public nationalist fervor under Franz Josef’s scheme of aristocratic federalism. Throughout its history, Prodaná Nevěsta has been performed as often in German as in Czech, making it accessible to enthusiastic international audiences. In Berlin the opera was accordingly performed as Die Verkaufte Braut, in a new translation.

How does one stage such an opera today, when we cannot help seeing the once thrillingly new Folklorismus through a thick scrim of the nationalist kitsch that followed? Capturing the audience’s attention is a general challenge in the staging of dramatic works from the past, which may be over-familiar or alien in their conventions or both. The debate plays out in terms that can be compared to the current debate in policy circles over moral rights in indigenous traditions: does the piece belong to the composer-author, to the singer-actors, or to the director? In opera, singers long held primary control over performances because they have historically commanded the audience: they could change composer-prescribed costumes or staging, add embellishments and high notes to their parts, even switch and interpolate arias for music better suited to their voice. In the twentieth century, two other agendas have competed with this privileging of the star performer: respect for the composer’s intentions and the desire to give the opera contemporary relevance as drama. The historical performance movement (earlier unfortunately termed “authentic performance”) seeks to restore performance practices, instruments, and stagings from the time and place of the piece’s composition. Although a contemporary perspective inevitably shapes such efforts, the project is intrinsically allied with what Paul Ricoeur called the “hermeneutics of completion,” the desire to help a text from the past speak on its own terms. When well done, it makes old work simultaneously strange and eloquent.

The contrary tendency is known as Regietheater, director’s theatre. Concerned to create a performance that is effective in the present, it frequently practices the characteristically modern “hermeneutics of suspicion,” proposing to open up what is tacit or repressed or distorted in the original text. This critical agenda interacts with the director’s assertion of will and pursuit of reputation as an auteur in his or her own right. Regietheater is often maligned, sometimes with good reason, for simply ignoring rather than challenging the spirit of a text, making it the pretext for the imposition of other scenic effects or concerns. In some respects, historical performance and Regie, as approaches to the single-authored historical products of elite culture, are comparable to heritage and Folklorismus as approaches to historical folk culture.

Born as Folklorismus, The Bartered Bride is by now itself a core monument of Czech national heritage, a familiar sacred cow to which homage must be paid, but not, perhaps, attention. It is not yet strange enough to audiences to create the demand for a historicist staging. For a theater that cares about its artistic reputation, Regietheater is the only option. The Berlin staging by Balázs Kovalik–who as a Hungarian has his own experiences with nationalist Folklorismus–struck me as the best kind of Regietheater, coming straight to terms with the chief points of tension between the past of the text and the present of the audience. One tension is stylistic, the other ethical.

How do we stomach all that Czech folklore? Well, Kovalik acknowledges the way we see it now: across a proscenium, without a context or human agency. During the brilliant overture to the piece, the curtain rose one quarter to reveal the sneakered feet and bluejeaned legs of a boy wandering around the stage; he was approached, in seeming threat, by one and then a second pair of scarlet-stockinged masculine legs. Instead of closing in on him, these then kicked up their heels and started dancing. As the sneakered figure backed uneasily away, the stage filled up with the standard folkloric ballet, of which we saw, however, only spinning skirts and dancing legs, all in traditional scarlet stockings–of which, according to the program, four dozen pairs had been ordered for the opera’s premiere in the imperial capital Vienna.

When the curtain rose fully, we saw the boy sketching: sketching a Bohemian village, each pen stroke projected onto a scrim. Behind this was a massive folding screen with a beautiful video image of a dense nineteenth-century forest, which changed color and light as the time and mood changed. Then came the chief conceit of the staging. Immobilized in heavy embroidered folk costumes, the bride and groom made their entrances standing in glass cases like those of an ethnographic museum, pushed in by uniformed workers. As the drama proceeded, the customs and traditions constraining the characters were objectified in dioramas of home, church, bedroom, circus tent: they stepped out of the cases to take action and back into them as they accepted their traps or sought their comfort. The village festival was populated by both costumed folkdancers and urban tourists coming in to drink beer and reclaim their roots. In a drama about a bride who is treated as property, the scenic materialization of containment and constraint provided a gloss rather than an obstacle to understanding. And despite the aggressive framing of the sets, the acting was naturalistic and the singing expressive, true to the Romantic spirit of the piece.

The ethical obstacles for a contemporary audience have to do, in the first instance, with Mařenka, this bartered bride. She is clever and assertive but has to stand up against her parents and the marriage broker, trying to marry her off to the feeble-minded son of a wealthy family, and also eventually against her lover, who has apparently relinquished his rights in her for three hundred guilders. Then there is that feeble-minded son, Vašek (the boy in the sneakers): not only foolish, sexually impulsive, and disoriented but a stutterer. He is freely manipulated throughout the opera by his contemptuous parents, his putative bride Mařenka (who tricks him into refusing her), and even a beautiful circus performer, who persuades him to take over as dancing bear from a drunken member of the troupe. In contrast, the other tenor is Mařenka‘s successful lover Jeník, a prodigal son who turns out to be Vašek ‘s older brother from the landowner Micha’s first marriage, returning home to claim his inheritance. He accomplishes this by pretending to sell Mařenka back to the marriage broker and stipulating in the contract that she must marry the son of Micha. The Berlin staging gives due weight to the lyric lamentations of both Mařenka, when she thinks that Jeník has betrayed her, and Vašek, who understands at least that everyone is playing cruelly with him.

When the trick is revealed, Mařenka’s parents quickly reseal the bargain with the rich couple, who cede at once to avoid scandal. At this abruptly happy conclusion, Mařenka sings “Now I understand, my dearest love,” not with instantaneous delight but with sarcastic fury as she takes in the way she has been instrumentalized. Vašek, no longer needed, sadly retreats into a display case and resumes his sketching; Mařenka, finally recognizing the kinship between them, draws near and looks at him through the glass as the chorus and families around them proclaim their delight at the wedding. The audience recognizes its own complicity in laughter as well as the distance it shares with Vašek from this tightly engineered social operation. Instead of the classic joyous comedic finale we have something like one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays”: specifically, Measure for Measure, with its formally happy ending dictated from above.

We are reminded that village tradition–to say nothing of the bourgeois culture that voyeuristically celebrates it through the lenses of museums and tourism and opera–is not all beer and dancing . It encompasses the propertization of women, the abuse of the disabled, and the unscrupulous but unavoidable struggle over scarce resources.

The great theorist Mikhail Bakhtin (who was in fact a conglomeration of at least three people, posing his own challenges to narrow conceptions of intellectual property), spoke of aesthetic work as holding potentialities. Art is designed to speak beyond the moment of its making. The intention embedded in a text (whether traditional or single-authored) includes growing in time, exceeding the conscious intentions of its makers and the understandings of its immediate time and place. Smetana was not an immemorial Czech. He drew on a particular artistic repertoire–the Czech cultural properties–in his effort to create a career in Prague at a moment when an explicitly “national” theater had just been opened and because his earlier work had been accused by local critics of “Wagnerism.” The Prague audience was not particularly impressed with the new opera, and only after it was enthusiastically received at the Vienna Music and Theatre Exhibition of 1892 (with intensified folkloristic decor, including those four dozen pairs of red stockings) did it return home to become a national treasure. To what moment and what audience can we really say it belongs? The Berlin staging of Die Verkaufte Braut opens up the potentialities of the piece in such a way that it becomes a common property.


  • Bendix, Regina. 1988. “Folklorism: The Challenge of a Concept.” International Folklore Review 6: 5–15.
  • Die Verkaufte Braut. 2011. Program book with texts by Stefan Horlitz, Marion Recknagel, etc., and new German libretto by Kurt Honolka. Berlin Staatsoper.
  • Morson, Gary Saul and Caryl Emerson. 1990. Mikhail Bakhtin: Creation of a Prosaics. Stanford University Press.
  • Ricoeur, Paul. 1977. Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation. Tr. Denis Savage. New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • Tyrrell, John. “Bartered Bride, The.” In The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, edited by Stanley Sadie. Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online, (accessed April 18, 2012).

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