Wed., June 22, 2011: Czech Opera Basics

Two typically Czech operas derive from the nation and its character.

Summer Solstice Series!

Summer is here! And to celebrate the season, Opus Osm continues our week-long Solstice Series of “backgrounder” articles. If you’ve ever wondered the who, why, what, or why not about opera, here are the answers to your questions. Zuzana Sklenková is on hand to anticipate everything you’ve always wanted to know about this glorious but confusing art form.

Part 3 Czech Opera (Starter Kit)
Love is at the center of the most famous Czech operas. One is a comic folk opera about arranged marriage; the other, a tale of a tragic quest for love. Coincidentally, both operas have female characters in their titles: The Bartered Bride (Prodaná Nevěsta) and The Water Nymph (Rusalka).

The Bartered Bride

Smetana composed his most popular and internationally recognized work following criticism heaped on his previous, historical opus, The Brandenburgers in Bohemia. Accused of Wagnerian influence, he wanted to create something light. But despite the comic nature of this opera, he put lots of energy into the composition and kept rewriting it. He produced three versions of the opera. The first, premiered in the Provisional Theatre (1866), was a two-act opera, but the final version (1870) was extended into three acts.

The Bartered Bride has earned its description as the Czech national opera: Set in a village during the autumn festival, posvícení (commemoration of a church consecration), inhabited with Czech characters, it even has a song dedicated to beer. Smetana also included many Czech musical themes, such as the national polka dance.

Emmy Destinn, one of the most famous Czech sopranos, as Mařenka, c. 1917

The libretto written by Karel Sabina might be reminiscent of some Shakespearean comedy, though in a Czech mantel. The bride from the title is Mařenka, who loves Jeník, a boy of unknown background. However, as in every fairytale, or possibly in every 19th century village, an obstacle stands in the way of their love.

Mařenka’s father has already arranged a marriage for his daughter with Vašek, a son of rich landowner Tobiáš Mícha. Suddenly the money-grubbing matchmaker Kecal appears. Kecal (=in Czech, ditherer, or talker) wants to close the marriage deal and attempts to convince the two young lovers, Mařenka and Jeník, to part.

Unsuccessful with Mařenka, he turns to Jeník, trying to bribe him out of his affection. At first, Jeník declines but later, surprisingly, he accepts Kecal’s offer to sell his girlfriend Mařenka for 300 ducats. There is only one condition he insists on: Mařenka can only be married to the son of the rich Tobias Mícha. Meanwhile Mařenka meets her suitor Vašek, without revealing her true identity, and she talks him out of the marriage, telling him that his bride-to-be is evil.

In the final act the comic triumphs. Mařenka confronts Jeník about his betrayal, and wants to marry Vašek out of vengeance. Yet Jeník announces that he is also a son of Mícha, the rich farmer, and therefore according to the contract he can marry her too. So now it’s up to her whom she will choose. Right then Vašek shows up wearing a bear costume, confirming that he is not really ready for marriage. So Mařenka falls into Jeník’s arms and love prevails over scheming for money.


Rusalka, Dvořák’s 8th, most successful opera, presents a story of a different nature. The libretto by the poet and director of the National Theatre, Jaroslav Kvapil, was based loosely on the Little Mermaid fairy tale by the Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen, adapted to Czech scenery. It’s been performed around the world, and many great opera singers have sung in Czech the aria “Song to the Moon.”

It’s a lyrical fairy tale about longing for love and the impossibility of union between the human and the supernatural worlds. Rusalka, the daughter of a water goblin, has one big wish: to have a human soul and experience love for the Prince who comes to hunt at the lake. Despite warnings from her father, she pursues her dream and visits a witch, who gives her a human body and soul.

Eva Urbanová, one of today's best-known singers, as Rusalka, with Veronika Hajnová as the witch

The only disadvantage is that she is stripped of her voice and there is a curse hanging over her. If she loses the love of her Prince, she will be banished back into the pond and live there as a bludička (a restless light showing up at night, taking people off to death).

At first, everything goes smoothly. Rusalka wins the love of her Prince and goes to live with him in the castle. However, during the wedding, a beautiful princess shows up who charms the Prince and he leaves Rusalka. Seeing all this, the water goblin curses the Prince and takes his daughter back to the pond, where she indeed lives as a bludička.

Trying to reverse her fate and go back to her old fairy-tale life, Rusalka visits the witch again. Yet the witch has only one remedy for the nymph: killing the Prince. Rusalka refuses. Meanwhile the Prince, cursed by the water goblin, realizes his mistake and runs to his Rusalka.

Though she warns him of his doom, he wants to be kissed by her again. Rusalka’s kisses kill the Prince. And Rusalka slides back under the water, back to being a bludička forever.

Now you know the basics of two great Czech operas. It only remains for you to go see them for yourself. – oo

–Zuzana Sklenková

Tomorrow: The New Season!

Photo Credits: Rusalka opera, copyright Statní Opera Praha, František Ortmann

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