Comic Opera in three acts. Running Time: 2 hours 1 minute, although other recordings might be up to fifteen minutes longer because of conducting speed.
It is hard to find a good recording of this opera. Many are in German or even English and I wasn’t going to do that to Smetana, who is rapidly becoming if not my favourite opera composer, definitely one of my favourites. Ironically, this was the last Smetana opera I have written a review for, even though it is by far the most famous. I chose this 1947 studio recording for two reasons: it is the shortest recording of the opera sung in Czech (being eight minutes shorter than the one I actually own) and it has Beno Blachut as Jenik, and if I can get a recording with Blachut, I will.
SETTING: A Bohemian village, mid-19th century. Marenka (soprano) and Jenik (tenor) are in love, but her father Krusina (baritone) wants her to marry Vasek (tenor), the son of Micha (bass), to whom he is gravely indebted. This match is encouraged by the matchmaker and marriage broker Kecal (bass), with whom Jenik makes a deal to sell is claim on Marenka in exchange for three conditions: that Marenka wed a son of Micha, that the debt her father owes be cleared immediate upon the marriage, and that Jenik himself receive 300 gulden. It seems air tight until Vasek falls in love with a Spanish Dancer named Esmeralda (soprano), and dresses up as a bear because he thinks Marenka wants to kill him. Also, just who is Jenik anyway?
LOOK OUT FOR:
ACT 1: A Czech village. (43 minutes)
0: The overture *** is a famous fugal scherzando based on one primary theme.
8: Proč bychom se netěšili The act starts off with a long orchestral prelude before we finally get into the opening chorus of villagers excited for a coming fair (more on this later) **. Marenka tells her lover Jenik that she is afraid that her father will force her to marry the son of Micha, a man he is indebted towards. She is surprised that her beloved is rather unconcerned by this turn of events.
15: Kdybych se co takového Marenka asks him why he does not seem to worry, and also what his origins are. She asks this is a mysterious sounding aria **.
18, 21: Jako matka požehnáním/Věrné milování Jenik explains that his father is rich, but his mother died many years ago and his stepmother forced him out of the house and he has had to work to maintain himself. The initial aria-duet (really more of a duet) has one good turn * but builds to a full blown, if placid duet **. The main theme here, which is repeated as a leitmotif for the lovers at various other points in the score, resembles the theme that Dvorak would later use for Xenia in Dimitrij.
24: Jak vám pravím, pane kmotře If you ever wanted to kill the idea that Smetana was under Wagnerian influence, listen to this Rossini-ian patter trio *** which starts off as an aria for the matchmaker Kecal before the parents of Marenka put in their two-cents. Goodness it is hard to not think this is Mozart at times!
29: Mladík slušný Kecal makes a sales pitch for Vasek which isn’t really all that interesting, the response from the parents is of greater interest *.
32: Tu ji máme Marenka comes on and confronts her parents over this whole marriage to a strange thing, at first it is rather tuneless but the oboe returns a bit of her duet with Jenik and this seems to give her some courage *.
38: Pojd’ sem, holka, toč se, holka The act ends with a polka **.
ACT 2: The village pub. (32 minutes)
0: To pivečko The act opens with an all-male drinking chorus in praise of beer, apparently the best thing in life **. Jenik comes on and claims that love is the best thing life has to offer, Kecal creates a third option: the almighty koruna (money)!
4: Now, the only actual Czech dance in all Smetana, a furiant, is performed by the drunken pub patrons *.
7: Má ma-ma Matička Vasek shows up at the pub and we immediately learn that he stutters in a weird tenor comic aria **.
10: Známť já jednu dívčinu Marenka meets up with Vasek and starts to terrorize him (without revealing who she is). She tells him rather point blankly that his fiancee is in love with another man and will see to it that he is soon murdered. Vasek continues to stutter in fear before yet another polka melody pops up and takes the number to a finish ** as she seduces him into wanting to marry her, as a different woman.
15: Nuže, milý chasníku, znám jednu dívku In a crazy duet *** Kecal offers Jenik marriage to a wealthy girl, he refuses. Jenik confesses to having no money, Kecal tells him that marriage is all about money, how much a man makes off of marrying, how much money a man brings into a marriage. Jenik makes a deal with Kecal: he will relinquish Marenka to a son of Micha (and no other) in exchange for 300 gulden and the cancellation of all debt owed by her father Krusina.
26: Jak možna věřit Jenik is unable to believe that even a man as cynical as Kecal (who has gone off to fetch a contract) could believe that he could be so easily bought off **.
29: Pojďte lidičky The main theme from the overture returns *** as Kecal returns with Krusina and the villagers as witnesses and everyone is horrified that Jenik appears to be selling off Marenka for 300 gulden.
ACT 3: Same as act 1, but with a circus tent pitched. (46 minutes).
1: To-to mi v hlavě le-leži Vasek is terrified that he will meet Marenka, who will make sure that he is dead very soon *.
5: The Comedic troop shows up and the Principal makes their announcement (incidentally the original actor in this part basically went through the entire performance in parlando). The comedians go into a Skocna, or comedic dance, showing of their acts **. Vasek falls in love with Esmeralda, the Spanish dancer.
14: Milostné zvířátko Disaster has already struck the small troop: the Indian sword-swallower shows up and says that the Bear (or rather the actor playing one in a bear costume), is drunk and can not go on. Esmeralda manages to use her feminine wiles to get Vasek to promise that he will be the bear for the evening performance in a brief but cheery little duet with the Principal *.
16: Aj! Jakže? Jakže? Vasek tells his parents and Kecal that he doesn’t want to marry Marenka now in a surprise quartet **. It is yet another very good Rossini-ian-ish ensemble.
20: Ne, ne, tomu nevěřím Marenka comes on believing that Jenik has sold her to Vasek ***. Again, another Rossini-like finish.
24: Rozmysli si, Mařenko Marenka does not know what to do * in this sadder little sextet.
27: Ó, jaký žal … Ten lásky sen Marenka mourns her lost love **.
32: Mařenko má! Jenik comes on and Marenka confronts him for his apparent betrayal **, it eventually goes into a gypsy-dance-like tune which is a bit beguiling.
37: Utiš se, dívko Kecal comes on and watches amusingly as Jenik tries to pacify Marenka with a honey-sweet tune ** and she threatens to marry Vasek out of revenge.
40: Jak jsi se, Mařenko rozmyslila? The chorus comes on for a new outing * and Jenik and Micha recognize each other, there is a mildly climactic patter ensemble but nothing really is worth noting musically until the Bear attacks!
46: Dobrá věc se podařila The Bear is Vasek in the costume (of course) this prompts Micha to figure that the boy is far too young for marriage so Jenik will marry Marenka after all, and will receive the 300 gulden because he is a son of Micha! The opera ends with a fast finaletto ensemble **.
Am I the only one who finds the action rather oddly paced in this work? I keep trying to rationalize the original two-act version (which has a lot less filler), because the story doesn’t really take off until act three (the original act two). However, there would be some problems with this, for one, the chorus has little to do already, they are only on stage for less than a quarter of the total running time of the opera, show up five times (the beginnings and ends of acts), and if not for the added five minute sequences which conclude act one and start act two, they would have less than twenty minutes of stage time, so maybe we need them. Given the later Smetana tendency to involve his choruses in the direct action (evident even in Branibori) the fact that here the score consists almost entirely of soloist ensembles is a little odd. The libretto is pure silliness, even the librettist admitted in the 1870s that had he known that Smetana had wanted to turn what he had thought was to be an operetta into a full-blown opera, he would have provided a much better libretto. For all the beauty in the music (and most of it is very beautiful), the opera is short on characterization. The sets of parents and the touring players (who seem more like a diversion from the main plot than actually contributing to it) have little to any contribution to the score. I would rather have liked for the relationship between Jenik and his stepmother to be further addressed, why did she kick him out? Why when they meet again does no drama come of past events? Only Kecel, the two lovers, and Vasek have actual, musically projected, personalities. Kecel is the best of these (I know, the bass!) with his patter speech-singing, while Smetana is able to grasp the innocence and forlorn yet fiery nature of Marenka through coloratura, the good-naturedness of Jenik, and the pathetic-ness of Vasek through key shifts. All four are great characters. There is also the recurring and somewhat haunting true love motif. Perhaps the Principle does at least have a unique personality in that he parlandos his way through his role. Although I can name three Smetana operas that I like more than this, it is an alpha nonetheless.