‘Z dorobkiem Stanislawa Moniuszki jest w Polsce spory problem'-‘The legacy of Stanislaw Moniuszko is a big problem in Poland.' No shirking the subject, then, in polish national opera's programme for its new production of Poland's ‘national opera', Halka. And if directors today feel weighed down by the traditions that have attached themselves to works by this ‘father of Polish opera'-his output has proved quite resistant to non-traditional productions-that feeling must be particularly acute when approaching Halka, on account of its iconic status within Polish culture. So all credit to the national company for tackling this problem head on, even if the outcome was not entirely free of its own freshly-created problems.
Moniuszko's first big operatic success, Halka was premiered in Vilnius in 1848 (as a two-act work) before reaching the Warsaw stage in the four-act version (1858) that launched the composer's career there. In most respects, the expanded version is all gain-much of the best music was added here-but the resulting score, so melodious and dance-rich, makes it hard to distance the work from its context of Old Poland. Deserving to be as well known as Smetana's Bartered Bride, which occupies a roughly equivalent place in Czech music, it hasn't travelled as well, though it achieved some currency, especially behind the iron curtain in communist times, on account of a plot-set in the Tatra mountains, it tells of how the village girl Halka is driven mad after the impoverished nobleman Janusz seduces and then abandons her, and not even the steadfastness of her sweetheart, the village lad Jontek, can stop her from committing suicide in the river-that ticked all the right bad-noblemen-vs-downtrodden-peasants boxes. Two productions stand out interestingly here: the Bolshoy's 1949 staging by Boris Pokrovsky, conducted by Kirill Kondrashin (which led to the first complete recording of the work, featuring a very fine Russian cast and which Melodiya apparently plans to reissue on CD), and Maria Fo³tyn's's 1971 staging in Havana, which by all accounts sought to free the work of its traditional, historical shackles.
In recent times, though, no major non-Polish conductor has tackled a Moniuszko opera, so it was very interesting that Warsaw engaged Marc Minkowski for this new production. Sharing duties with £ukasz Borowicz, a new and energetic champion of Polish music, Minkowski brought his own perspective to the work, with mixed results on December 27. His fresh approach paid off handsomely in the overture, where he shaded the dynamics carefully and drew playing of both attack and warmth from the orchestra. Nothing seemed to be taken for granted here, but this welcome dusting-off wasn't followed through everywhere else. In trademark Minkowski fashion, the conductor was rigid in the mazurka and polonaise rhythms, with just a handful of default (mostly fast) tempo settings, and though he summoned up cosmopolitan elegance (appropriately in a composer who was influenced by Donizetti and others), some rawer colours would have been welcome. All told, though, an stimulating engagement, and perhaps he will take this or another Moniuszko opera back to Paris.
The Warsaw management's other calculated gamble was with the (predominantly theatre) director Natalia Korczakowska. Though sometimes betraying an insensitivity to the singers' needs, she found an often stimulating way of putting some distance between her stage and a traditional Halka one while acknowledging the traditions that inform the piece. First appearances (via video projections during the overture) were of an entirely modern-dress staging, and the white tiles of Anna Met's set (suggestive perhaps of a now fashionable Warsaw restaurant situated in the former kitchens of a big communist-era hotel) only amplified that. The chorus in the opening scene wore contemporary evening dress, and Dziemba (steward to Stolnik, Janusz's father-in-law) turned out to be a microphone-wielding master of ceremonies. But gradually the traditional elements crept into Marek Adamski's costumes. The white tiles gave way at the back of the stage to a historically-themed room, and the men wore long embroidered belts and other elements of the kontusz, or noble male garb, over their evening dress. Footmen in 18th-century costume added to the impression that this Stolnik was perhaps throwing a themed party for his nouveau-riche friends. So much for Stolnik's impoverishment.
The most striking features of the set were a Gehry-like mountaintop for Act 3 and the deconstructed church that was flown in during Act 4-a mobile of floating pieces that added up to a traditional wooden structure. Much of the set-piece dances (choreographed by Tomasz Wygoda) had an authentic basis, but one of the sillier touches in Act 3 was the addition of whizzing roller-skaters. There was plenty of movement-the stage was extended via a white-tiled apron around the orchestra pit-and the auditorium was also used for processional entrances.
The casting could have been more even, but only the dry-toned, droning Stolnik of Mieczys³aw Milun stood out uncomfortably. In the title role, Wioletta Chodowicz started well with her entrance folksong, yet any impression here of peachy tone was dispelled as her soprano thinned out towards the top of the stave in her more taxing music. Her rival Zofia (Stolnik's daughter, betrothed to Janusz) was more alluringly sung by the dusky-toned Ma³gorzata Pañko. The two leading men were both notable. Artur Ruciñski brought his dark, focused baritone to Janusz, investing the character from his big first-act aria onwards with cold aloofness. Best of all (and not for the first time, after his strong showing in Statkowski's Maria at Wexford), the tenor Rafa³ Bartmiñski applied easy, ringing tone to Jontek, singing with an appealing mixture of lyricism and heft.
His Act 3 lament was a highlight, though his acting still needs work. Were that to be addressed, this tall and handsome tenor could command any stage.