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Natalya Romaniw (Mařenka) - photo Clive Barda

Strong Women in Opera: Mařenka

Opera is certainly not the most tender artform with the fairer sex. Between sacrifices, rapes, forced marriages, illnesses, suicides or even murders, women are often presented as the victims of a destiny. However beautiful and tragic, their fate remains outside of their control, bound by essentially patriarchal societies centered around male needs. In this series of articles, we will focus on female roles who stand out by virtue of their strong, independent and enterprising character. Heroines who prove to us that opera, as a mirror of our societies, is capable of questioning certain models and gender representations.

1. Mařenka in The Bartered Bride by Smetana

As its title suggests, this opera by Czech composer Bedřich Smetana does not herald a particularly pleasant story for our protagonist. And yet Mařenka comes first in our ranking of strong female opera figures.

Promised to a stranger so that her parents can settle their debts, the young woman simply refuses to accept her fate and uses all her wit to thwart her parents' plans and marry Jeník, the man she really loves. But how? Without revealing her identity, she succeeds in portraying such a terrifying image of herself to the young man she‘s bound to marry that he swears never to marry her. Clever, right? For his part, Jeník also plays a double game in order to resolve the situation, which leads Mařenka to momentarily doubt his love, as illustrated in the extract below.

Natalya Romaniw (Mařenka) - photo Clive Barda

Extract | 'Ten lásky sen, jak krásný byl'

As Paul Curran, director of the Garington Opera’s production explains: ‘Mařenka is neither a ditzy romantic nor a scheming bitch – she’s a strong, capable young woman who is deeply offended and hurt that she is being sold off by a marriage broker in this outrageous fashion.’ At the time the opera was composed in 1860, forced marriages were still commonplace. It was what one could expect of a young woman by conservative standards of the time. Mařenka however put her foot down, stating: ‘Forget it, I don't want to marry this man, I don't see why I should.’ A genuine feminist!