Opera Club: Stanisław Moniuszko’s ‘Halka’, & Bach and Mahler for Easter.
Few Polish operas have made it into the international opera canon – you may occasionally find productions of Szymanowski’s King Roger, or the late Penderecki’s Devils of Loudun. The relative obscurity of pieces such as Moniuszko’s Halka, or polymath Paderewski’s Manru in the international opera circuit is somewhat undeserved.
In Poland, Halka remains the most popular Polish opera. Its composer, Stanisław Moniuszko, was the leading Polish opera composer of the 19th century, and the premiere of Halka (concert performance 1846; first staged production 1854) in Vilnius. Previously, Moniuszko had composed various operettas, with varying success, as well as a song book Śpiewnik domowy – “Home songs”. Alongside Chopin, Moniuszko is sometimes regarded as a true “national” composer, whose interest lay in capturing the Polish national psyche and sound in his work. Especially as a composer of songs, Moniuszko fostered a national style, taking inspiration from folk dance rhythm. This approach is manifest in his opera composition too – which coincided with a time of growing nationalist sentiment and political activity aimed against the Russian occupiers (culminating in the January Uprising in 1863-4).
Halka, with a libretto written by the young political poet Włodzimierz Wolski, investigates the relationship between Polish gentry and neighbouring peasants – exemplified by the troubled love affair of the young country woman Halka, and wealthy landowner Janusz. Its story of class difference, personal deceit, and ultimately tragedy is a passionate political commentary that was censored when published as Wolski’s poem some years before. Nonetheless, Moniuszko, Wolski, and the publisher Sikorski pressed ahead with preparations for a reworking of the text for a two-act opera, which was given a semi-private performance at Moniuszko’s in-laws in Vilnius. A full production was realised six years later, and further revisions made after.
Presented in its revised form with four acts in 1858, Halka was immediately well received. Musically and formally, the opera is indebted to the French tradition of grand opera, with large tableaux, grand chorus scenes, and dance. Its folk-inspired arias add intimacy, maybe most beautifully in Halka’s cavatinas in Act I and IV. The staging was recorded at the Polish National Opera in Warsaw, in a production by Poznán Opera. The conductor is Gabriel Chmura, direction by Paweł Passini. Halka is sung by Monika Mych-Nowicka, Jontek by Piotr Friebe, and Janusz by Łukasz Goliński.
For this Easter weekend, we would also like to recommend the following:
Bach and Mahler at Easter
J.S. Bach: St. Matthew Passion (10th April from 11am for 24 hrs)
J. S. Bach: B minor Mass (12th April from 11am for 24 hrs)
Gustav Mahler: “Resurrection” Symphony No. 2 (13th April from 11am for 24 hrs)