Cher Public

And the villain still pursued her

Last month tenor Piotr Beczala triumphantly posted on Instagram the news that the Theater an der Wien would produce Stanislaw Moniuszko’s Halka in 2019. However New Yorkers didn’t have to wait two years as Bard College presented a semi-staged concert of Halka on Saturday evening as part of its impressively wide-ranging two-week “Chopin and his World” festival. 

Despite the laudable efforts of the large forces involved, led by a soaring Amanda Majeski in the title role, the “Polish National Opera” was revealed to be a musically accomplished but theatrically inert and uninvolving work.

If one knows of Halka at all, it’s as “the Polish National Opera” as if every country has one. I racked my brains trying to come up with other works worthy of that sobriquet and wondered if perhaps Erkel’s Bánk Bán might be Hungary’s but otherwise I came up empty. In her fascinating pre-concert talk Halina Goldberg delved into the thorny question of why colleagues of Chopin were so insistent that he write an opera, one that would be embraced world-wide as “the Polish Opera.”

But yet Chopin despite his love for bel canto chose not to rise to the bait. But Moniuszko, whose oeuvre consists primarily of vocal and choral works, did although it’s unlikely his ambitions were so lofty.

As Poland per se didn’t exist in the 19th century the cultural elite believed an important music-drama could become a boon to promoting a national identity, but Halka’s emergence as that vessel remains most peculiar. As Goldberg discussed, there had been overtly political operas composed in Polish dating back to the late 18th century but all had been considered either too parochial or less than musically distinguished.

However, the libretto of Halka by Wlodzimerz Wolski surprisingly contains little specifically indigenous to Poland—it’s standard “spoiled nobleman seduces and abandons naïve peasant girl” fare. While Moniuszko’s stirring and colorful music elevates this commonplace trope, the crown of “Polish National Opera” sits uneasily on Halka’s head.

The opera premiered as a small-scale two-act work in 1848 but then was much expanded into a four-act version which opened to rapturous acclaim in Warsaw ten years later. While it did gain some international recognition and has been performed occasionally outside of Poland, it unfortunately lacks a compelling dramatic profile. Its static “Debbie Downer” heroine must be one of opera’s most clueless and masochistic central figures—and that is saying something!

Impregnated by Janusz, Halka first “appears” off-stage bemoaning her cruel fate during her seducer’s engagement party to the more appropriate Zofia, daughter of the wealthy Stolnik. Halka stays in “woe is me” mode for nearly the entire opera except for a flicker of deluded hope that Janusz will return to her (and their child). True, there is an arresting moment during her final monologue where she is sorely tempted to burn down the church where Janusz is marrying Zofia but she relents, forgives him (!) despite their child having recently died of starvation (!!) and jumps into the river.

Janusz functions solely a cardboard villain despite having an occasional pang of remorse but more sympathetic is Jontek, Halka’s helplessly co-dependent ex-boyfriend. Despite her never listening to a thing he says, he can’t stop himself from following her everywhere warning her about her bad life choices. The other characters—Janusz’s clueless fiancée, her father and Dziemba, the all-purpose bass factotum—are ciphers.

Compelling, expansive arias for Halka and Jontek open the second and fourth acts respectively, but Moniuszko adopts a through-composed style that frustrates an audience’s urge to applaud those poignant solos. Noted for its use of folk melodies, the work resembles some pre-Wagner German operas like those of Weber and Marschner, composers championed recently by Halka’s conductor Leon Botstein. Ironically the best-known excerpt is the traditionally Polish grand mazurka that concludes the first act—a moment which contributes little to the doom-laden plot.

Several times the opera reminded me of a darkly inverted Bartered Bride, a work which Smetana (who conducted the Prague premiere of Halka) composed nearly a decade later.

Though the evening got off to a rocky start with a drab performance of the lackluster overture, Botstein and his large committed orchestra steadily found their from and did justice to that mazurka although the less grand dance music in the fourth act swirled even more infectiously. The full-throated Bard Festival Chorale was as impressive as it had been earlier this summer in Dvorak’s Dimitrij.

As the two men in Halka’s life, Miles Mykkanen and Aubrey Allicock excelled. Mykkanen, the hapless Jontek, radiated good will and concern while singing with increasing ardor and alarm although at times he pushed for more and more volume. He displayed again an especial flair for Eastern European opera; he had made a strong impression earlier this year as Tichon (another poor sap) in Juilliard’s production of Janacek’s Katya Kabanova.

The first time I heard Allicock was also in Janacek at Juilliard—as a superb Forester in The Cunning Little Vixen. As Janusz he wisely underplayed the villainy and sounded more like a bass-baritone than I had remembered. I could imagine his pungent grainy voice working well in a role like Tomsky in Tchaikovsky’s Pikovaya Dama. Yet, as with Mykkenen, I thought his role was a size too big for him at this moment in his young career.

Best known for her Mozart and Richard Strauss roles, Majeski proudly acknowledges being “an only child of 100% Polish ancestry” on her website. That said she didn’t seem at ease with the language and made less of the text than some of the others. While one could imagine a more overtly passionate and despairing interpretation of Halka, her coolly radiant soprano dominated the evening. Her rapid vibrato has an exciting edge that rose thrillingly above the ensembles. x

Occasionally I wanted more dynamic variation and the top could turn tight but this was all in all a thrilling first stab at a demanding role and much more rewarding than my previous encounter with her at her Met debut as the Countess in Le Nozze di Figaro. Despite her best efforts Halka’s desperation proved unmoving—even the chorus is unsympathetic tut-tutting that a peasant girl should know better than to get mixed up with a nobleman.

However, Zurich would do well to engage her for its upcoming Halka production to be directed by Mariuz Treli?ski who produced the Met’s recent Tristan. But before then Majeski will be Fiordiligi in the Met’s new Coney Island-Così fan Tutte and don trousers as the (soprano!) Komponist in Ariadne auf Naxos in Santa Fe next summer.

Mary Birnbaum’s concert staging for the most part presented the action simply and effectively while nimbly clearing away the music stands when the four dancers needed to do their thing in the narrow performing space in front of the orchestra. A happy fluke of the casting wittily indicated that Janusz definitely had a “type”: both Majeski and Teresa Buchholz (Zofia) are lovely tall slender blondes!

Adam Cates’s choreography was apt when dancing was called for; but his additions such as a dancer miming the ominous raven that appeared at the end of third act were less felicitous. The performance’s major flaw was the wildly erratic lighting design by Anshuman Bhatia which tried for a lot of dramatic effects but ended up plunging the singers’s faces into darkness far too often.

Despite the opera’s many colorful and arresting moments, it wasn’t difficult to understand why Halka has never gained a place in opera houses worldwide. Along with its self-pitying, ultimately unsympathetic heroine, the unwieldy and high-minded poetic contrivances of the libretto—everyone is constantly referred to as birds or animals: Halka is a dove and Janusz her falcon, etc.—contribute mightily to the work’s flat affect.

If it wasn’t a revelation comparable to last summer’s semi-staged Busoni Turandot, I was grateful to have experienced Halka live. The Polish language issue may have also contributed to its relative neglect but then who would have guessed fifty years ago that Czech and Russian operas would be done so regularly in their native languages worldwide.

But as the Met is not producing any Russian (or Czech) opera this season, one will have to wait until next year when Bard programs Rubinstein’s superb The Demon as its Summerscape centerpiece and the attendant “Rimsky-Korsakov and His World” festova; might present at least one rare Rimsky opera as well.

  • Willym

    Saw Halka several times when I lived in Warsaw. The Kameralna did the “Vilnius” version as part of their standard, very expansive, repertoire while the Wielki did the four act version. As a parting gift I was given a recording of the two act version by the Kameralna director which I must take from it’s shelf and listen to again.

  • leoniceno

    When the Canadian Opera Company did “Louis Riel” this spring, I read some articles referring to it as the “Great Canadian Opera” or the like. And surely “Porgy and Bess” is the American National Opera.

    • Perhaps La Muette de Portici is Belgium’s?

    • I think that, ideally, there is no such thing.

      One would want to be in a position where there are too many choices to pick the “The Great ____ Opera”.

      Louis Riel has that reputation for three reasons:

      1. It was commissioned for Canadian’s centenary.
      2. Its subject matter is distinctly Canadian and the story is set around the time of the country’s infancy.
      3. The opera doesn’t have a whole lot of competition.

      The U.S. has a longer and much richer tradition of opera composition.

  • DonCarloFanatic

    We’re inured--okay, some of us are--to directors twisting and otherwise being transgressive re the librettists’ & composers’ original concepts. I wonder why no one bothers to twist these flat, cliche stories into more affecting material? (I’m thinking about Iris, too.) Wouldn’t merely changing some dialogue or the words to some arias improve the view of the wan heroine? Or is the music itself so soaked in self-pity that there’s no hope?