The Bartered Bride (Czech: Prodaná nevěsta, The Sold Fiancée) is a comic opera in three acts by the Czech composer Bedřich Smetana, to a libretto by Karel Sabina. The opera is considered to have made a major contribution towards the development of Czech music. It was composed during the period 1863–66, and first performed at the Provisional Theatre, Prague, on 30 May 1866 in a two-act format with spoken dialogue. Set in a country village and with realistic characters, it tells the story of how, after a late surprise revelation, true love prevails over the combined efforts of ambitious parents and a scheming marriage broker. The opera was not immediately successful, and was revised and extended in the following four years. In its final version, premiered in 1870, it gained rapid popularity and eventually became a worldwide success.
Czech national opera until this time had been represented only by a number of minor, rarely performed works. This opera, Smetana’s second, was part of his quest to create a truly Czech operatic genre. Smetana’s musical treatment makes considerable use of traditional Bohemian dance forms such as the polka and furiant, although he largely avoids the direct quotation of folksong. He nevertheless created music which was accurately folk-like, and is considered by Czechs to be quintessentially Czech in spirit. The overture, often played as a concert piece independently from the opera, was, unusually, composed before almost any of the other music had been written.
After a performance at the Vienna Music and Theatre Exhibition of 1892, the opera achieved international recognition. It was performed in Chicago in 1893, London in 1895 and reached New York in 1909, subsequently becoming the first, and for many years the only, Czech opera in the general repertory. Many of these early international performances were in German, under the title Die verkaufte Braut, and the German-language version continues to be played and recorded. A German film of the opera was made in 1932 by Max Ophüls.
Until the middle 1850s Bedřich Smetana was known in Prague principally as a teacher, pianist and composer of salon pieces. His failure to achieve wider recognition in the Bohemian capital led him to depart in 1856 for Sweden, where he spent the next five years. During this period he extended his compositional range to large-scale orchestral works in the descriptive style championed by Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner. Liszt was Smetana’s long-time mentor; he had accepted a dedication of the latter’s Opus 1: Six Characteristic Pieces for Piano in 1848, and had encouraged the younger composer’s career since then. In September 1857 Smetana visited Liszt in Weimar, where he met Peter Cornelius, a follower of Liszt’s who was working on a comic opera, Der Barbier von Bagdad. Reportedly, their discussions centred on the need to create a modern style of comic opera, as a counterbalance to Wagner’s new form of music drama. A comment was made by the Viennese conductor Johann von Herbeck to the effect that Czechs were incapable of making music of their own, a remark which Smetana took to heart: “I swore there and then that no other than I should beget a native Czech music.”
Smetana did not act immediately on this aspiration. The announcement that a Provisional Theatre was to be opened in Prague, as a home for Czech opera and drama pending the building of a permanent National Theatre, influenced his decision to return permanently to his homeland in 1861. He was then spurred to creative action by the announcement of a prize competition, sponsored by the Czech patriot Jan von Harrach, to provide suitable operas for the Provisional Theatre. By 1863 he had written The Brandenburgers in Bohemia to a libretto by the Czech nationalist poet Karel Sabina, whom Smetana had met briefly in 1848. The Brandenburgers, which was awarded the opera prize, was a serious historical drama, but even before its completion Smetana was noting down themes for use in a future comic opera. By this time he had heard the music of Cornelius’s Der Barbier, and was ready to try his own hand at the comic genre.