The Cunning Peasant (Šelma sedlák), Op. 37, B67
Burghauser catalogue number
Date of composition
February 1877 – July 1877
Premiere - date and place
27 January 1878, Prague
Josef Lev (Prince), Terezie Boschettiová (Princess), Karel Čech (Martin), Marie Lauschmannová (Bětuška), Betty Fibichová (Veruna), Jan Šára (Václav), Antonín Vávra (Jeník), Antonie Tichá (Berta), Adolf Krössing (Jean), Provisional Theatre Orchestra and Choir, conductor Adolf Čech, director Edmund Chvalovský
Simrock, 1882, Berlin
Author of the libretto
Josef Otakar Veselý
1 piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, bass drum, triangle, harp, violins, violas, cellos, double basses + mixed choir + soloists
Parts / movements
1st act: The Castle Garden
2nd act: Martin's Farmyard
Prince – baritone
Princess – soprano
Martin, peasant – bass
Bětuška, his daughter – soprano
Václav – tenor
Veruna, bailiff – contralto
Jeník, farm worker – tenor
Berta, lady's maid – soprano
Jean, servant – tenor
village people, castle people, musicians
approx. 2 hr.
After his tragic opera Vanda, Dvořák turned his attention to a quite different topic, choosing a comic libretto set in a Czech village. He was most likely inspired by the recent success of the premiere of Smetana’s The Kiss which, after the latter’s previous two operas, criticised for their stylistic inclination towards the Wagnerian music drama, was extremely well received as a work which re-kindled the spirit of the iconic Bartered Bride. Dvořák began writing his new opera in 1877. The libretto, whose original title, A Slap for the Prince, was later changed to The Cunning Peasant, was penned by young librettist Josef Otakar Veselý, with whom Dvořák had become acquainted during visits to the Academic Readers’ Association. The work took Dvořák about six months to complete and, as soon as it was finished, in the summer of 1877, he submitted it to the Provisional Theatre for staging.
Like the composer’s previous comic opera The Stubborn Lovers, this libretto also capitalised on the universal popularity of Smetana’s The Bartered Bride, perhaps even to a greater extent. Apart from the rural theme, parallel plotlines and the names of certain characters (the heroine is to marry Václav, but she loves Jeník), the librettist in this case also opted for a similar text, including analogous verse endings (zlosti – mrzutosti, jinde – kvinde). The libretto also draws on Beaumarchais’s The Marriage of Figaro: here, too, the worlds of the nobility and commoners collide, the story involves love entanglements between members of both social strata, and it also uses the popular motif of disguise, among others. The audience at that time must have sensed the libretto’s lack of originality even more, given that some of the characters were evidently inspired by other Czech operas, today little known or forgotten, but frequently performed at the time. Take the wise Veruna, whose prefiguration and name will be found in Blodek’s one-act opera In the Well, or the motif of ridicule, where the comic character falls into a barrel in a scene strongly reminiscent of the then highly successful opera by Vojtěch Hřímalý, The Enchanted Prince. The libretto as a whole is considerably naive, certain plotlines lack full justification, and the endings of both acts are too lacklustre to be dramatically convincing. Referring to the libretto, music critic and aesthetician Otakar Hostinský later remarked: “Dvořák’s The Cunning Peasant found favour with the public from the very outset. That the reception of this new work was so wonderful, even wholehearted, testifies most of all to the impact of Dvořák’s music; we can hardly attribute this to the text. In no way can we state that this two-act comic libretto, penned by J. O. Veselý, represents progress along a path once happily set down by The Bartered Bride; it is more a clear step backwards.”
Despite all its shortcomings, the libretto enabled Dvořák to create a mature operatic work with independent scenes constructed upon traditional musical forms. The music is joyful in temperament and its melodic, rhythmical and harmonic elements are typical expressions of the composer’s invention. The folkloric spirit of the work was achieved, among others, with abundant use of distinctive dance types (polka, skočná /fast dance/, sousedská /slow dance in 3/4 time/), whose treatment in the introductory scene in Act Two (May festival) is perhaps one of the composer’s most original stylisations of a folk dance. The sophisticated composition and effective instrumentation of these passages betray the elemental symphonist in their author. The music appeared now to step over the boundaries of the comic folk opera, as eminent Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick observed: “The ballet movement in D minor in Act Two is more a symphonic scherzo than an operatic dance piece”. One of the finer points of Dvořák’s musical setting is his ability to characterise the individual figures and clearly distinguish their affiliation to a particular estate, in this case, the nobility or commoners.
The opera’s premiere, hosted by the Provisional Theatre on 27 January 1878, was universally well received as a valuable contribution to the “Czech national opera” collection. Critics also acknowledged Dvořák’s endeavour to emulate the example set by Smetana in his Bartered Bride and The Kiss. The audience at the premiere demanded encores of both the overture and the duet in Act One. With this work Dvořák presented himself for the first time as a true dramatic author in whom people saw a successor who would continue the legacy Bedřich Smetana had left behind for the stage.
Světozor, 1 February 1878:
“Czech operatic literature can now boast the addition of yet another successful work. Dvořák’s comic opera The Cunning Peasant is not only faultless, but also of a supreme maturity which will ensure that it will not fall into the mire of oblivion in the theatre archives – it has much life in it yet. The future will hardly admonish us for a false claim if we predict its place in our repertoire for many years to come. [...] The Kiss provided a fitting model for him [i.e. Dvořák], but not a model we would wish to imitate; instead, using our own fantasy, we create a counter-image of equal weight. Perhaps Dvořák in this case has not yet achieved the consistency of all parts, the appropriate characteristics, and the purity and permanence of the national style that we rightly admire in the music of Smetana, nevertheless, he should feel entirely gratified by his opera, thanks to which he now assumes second place among our drama composers.”
foreign productions and publication
In connection with the growing number of performances of Dvořák’s orchestral works abroad, and their ever increasing popularity, the composer was approached in 1881 by the management of Vienna’s Ringtheater, who requested one of his operas for staging at the venue. The composer offered them The Cunning Peasant. However, the work merely existed in manuscript form; the only part of the opera to have been published was the overture. With the potential staging of The Cunning Peasant in Vienna, Dvořák wrote to his publisher Simrock in Berlin: “My opera The Cunning Peasant will be performed in Vienna’s Ringtheater in the autumn. It is the most opportune time for the work to appear in print. [...] I therefore would like to ask you if you would publish the opera, since you have already published the overture.” Simrock did indeed publish the entire opera shortly afterwards.
However, the preparations for the performance at the Ringtheater were hampered by unexpected delays, and so the first foreign production was entrusted to the Dresden Opera, which was also keen to stage the work. The Dresden premiere on 24 October 1882, attended by Dvořák himself, was a resounding success, not only for the composer but – as was the general opinion – for Czech music overall. Music critic Ludevít Procházka, who also attended the premiere, noted that “the audience listened from beginning to end with obvious pleasure and found that, in this work, Czech art holds its own in a manner worthy not only of respect, but also admiration”. It wasn’t long before another foreign opera house expressed an interest in staging the work, this time in Hamburg. The latter premiere was held on 3 January 1883, and thus also preceded the Viennese production.
26 October 1882, Antonín Dvořák writing to Fritz Simrock about the Dresden performance:
“It is such a shame that you were not in Dresden; you would have certainly been overjoyed at the total success and exemplary performance. Schuch conducted the opera superbly. Everything went as it should have done, and the nuances in the orchestra and chorus were wonderful. Mr Bulss (the Prince) and Mrs Schuch (Bětuška), also Mr Decarli (Martin) alongside Erl (Jeník) and Jensen (the Valet) were excellent. Even the overture received thunderous applause, as did practically all the numbers. The Prince’s aria, in particular, was so beautifully performed that the audience demanded that it be sung again. In short, everything was magnificent and the audience was extremely lively. I was called up to take a bow after each act!”
The premiere of the Vienna production eventually took place in the Hofoper on 19 November 1885, but it was marred by unfavourable circumstances, becoming the victim of politico-nationalistic attacks; the opera only saw one repeat performance. During a police operation, several members of the Teutonia students’ society were led out of the theatre and arrested. Dvořák alluded to this event in a note he made at the end of his sketch for the first part of the oratorio Saint Ludmila, which he was working on at the time: “Completed at the time of the execution of The Cunning Peasant in Vienna!”
The very first year The Cunning Peasant appeared on stage, it was performed eight times, a considerably greater number in comparison with the composer’s previous operas. A testament to its popularity, the work was also Dvořák’s first opera to be staged outside Prague. First, five times under Dvořák's direction in July 1878 at what was known as the Aréna, the site of the present-day Švanda Theatre in Prague’s Smíchov district (an area at that time located outside the capital’s boundaries), and then in December 1878 at the Municipal Theatre in Plzeň – in both cases attributable to the enterprising theatre impresario Pavel Švanda of Semčice, who negotiated with Dvořák for exclusive rights to stage the opera outside Prague.
The Cunning Peasant was performed in Czech theatres relatively frequently up until the 1950s. Even though the number of its repeat performances would never match that of The Jacobin, The Devil and Kate and Rusalka, it still managed to maintain a sense of continuity in the eyes of the public. The opera was last staged at the National Theatre in Prague on 14 June 1958. Its appearance in regional theatres is only sporadic (1948 Opava, 1949 Ústí nad Labem, 1954 and 2019 Plzeň, 1954 Ostrava, 1960 Liberec, 1977 Opava, 1979 Liberec, 1981 Ostrava, 1989 České Budějovice). The most recent production of the opera outside Czech Republic was probably staged in London in 1997 (Guildhall School of Music & Drama, directed by Robert Chevara).
Martin, a farmer, intends to marry off his daughter Bětuška to a rich farmer’s son, Václav, completely disregarding the fact that she loves the poor farm hand Jeník. Bětuška refuses to forsake her love, so her father, together with Václav, thinks up a plan to thwart the lovers: in the evening, they will place a barrel of water beneath Bětuška’s window with a broken plank across it. When Jeník comes to Bětuška’s window in the evening, he’ll fall into the barrel and they’ll give him a good beating as well afterwards. But their plan is overheard by Veruna, the village forewoman, who decides to put a stop to it. The Prince and Princess arrive in the village, together with their entourage from the castle. Bětuška decides to ask the gentry to help her prevent the arranged marriage. Both the Prince and his valet Jean are greatly taken with her beauty – Jean forgets all about the chambermaid Berta, and the Prince tells Bětuška that he is willing to give Jeník an entire farm just for a rendezvous with her in the evening after the May dance. Veruna immediately knows how to make use of this situation. She asks for an audience with the Princess and informs her of her subterfuge: in the evening, the Princess and Berta will be disguised as villagers – the Princess will go instead of Bětuška for a rendezvous with the Prince, while Berta will hide in Bětuška’s room, from where she will lure besotted Jean towards the barrel positioned beneath the window.
In the evening, after the May celebration, Martin and Václav roll a barrel up to the house and position it beneath Bětuška’s window; then they find a hiding place and lie in wait. The Princess, disguised as Bětuška, waits for the Prince by the gate, and Berta goes up to the room to wait for Jean. After a while, Jean sneaks up to the window, climbs up onto the barrel and immediately falls in. At that moment, a loud slap is heard from the direction of the gate, where the Prince has just received his comeuppance for being unfaithful to his wife. The Prince now has to grovel before the Princess and fulfil the promise he made to Bětuška – to give Jeník a farm. Now Martin has no qualms about his daughter marrying Jeník.