New production of The Bartered Bride divides audiences and critics but director remains unfazed

The Bartered Bride

Bedřich Smetana’s comic opera The Bartered Bride is widely regarded as a major contribution towards the development of Czech music and was the first Czech opera to achieve worldwide fame. Twenty-one different productions of the work have been performed at Prague’s National Theatre since its premier in 1866, but no interpretation has been so divisive as the most recent production, directed by Alice Nellis.

Alice Nellis | Photo: Rostislav Taud,  Czech Radio

The premier of Alice Nellis’ new interpretation of The Bartered Bride back in May immediately caused a furore. According to online arts magazine Opera PLUS, some audience members left in disgust after the first act. One critic even stood up and yelled “You should be ashamed of yourselves” before walking out. But Nellis, who has kept the name of her second husband, US financial analyst Simon Nellis, says that she enjoyed even the negative reactions.

The Bartered Bride | Photo: Zdeněk Sokol,  National Theatre

“At the end some people booed, some yelled bravo, some clapped. But what I liked about it was that even though some people booed, they still allowed others space to be free in their reactions. I had the feeling that everyone there let something go emotionally in their own way, because laughter brings relaxation, it gets rid of stress, and I think that even those who booed loudly over the music had some emotion inside themselves that they were able to release.”

The Bartered Bride | Photo: Ilona Sochorová,  National Theatre

Nellis says that the strong emotional reactions to the premier pleased her even more because in general, Czechs are usually quite reserved in their responses to theatre and performance.

“It was an extremely lively premier, which is a compliment on both sides, because in general we are not a very passionate nation. At premiers in Spain or Italy, people scream and shout, some boo, some yell bravo or give a standing ovation – but here people usually just sit quietly and applaud, sometimes more enthusiastically, sometimes less. But this was something wilder.”

The Bartered Bride | Photo: Ilona Sochorová,  National Theatre

Nellis’s modern interpretation of Smetana’s opera transposes the setting from a countryside village to an urban apartment block housing estate, and instead of the famous polka, the actors do something more resembling a breakdance, causing some critics to accuse the production of dishonouring Smetana. But Nellis says that The Bartered Bride was intended to be a farce, and her interpretation remains true to that original goal.

The Bartered Bride | Photo: Ilona Sochorová,  National Theatre

“I see The Bartered Bride as a great musical work – the music is beautiful, I think that time hasn’t changed that. And it’s also a very specific genre – it was written as a comic opera. And these two things were the starting points for our production. I don’t see anything in it that suggests a duty or obligation to nationalist or revivalist ideals – it’s a farce. There are no heroes in it, certainly no national heroes – it’s a true farce, it was intended as a farce, and I think that, at the time it was written, its aims were on the one hand to entertain people and on the other to gratify them with beautiful music. And we tried to do the same with our production.”

The Bartered Bride | Photo: Ilona Sochorová,  National Theatre

Performances of The Bartered Bride will continue at the National Theatre throughout the summer and autumn, with the final show slated for November.