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Nicolae BRETAN (1887–1968)
Horia - Opera in seven scenes. Libretto by the composer (1937)
Gheorghe Crăsnaru (bass-baritone) – Horia; Emil Iuraşcu (baritone) – Cloşca; Marcel Angelescu (tenor) – Crişan; Julia Buciuceanu (mezzo) – Dochia, Horia’s wife; Cornelia Pop (soprano) – Ileana, Horia’s daughter; Corneliu Fănăţranu (tenor) – Ionel, Ileana’s betrothed; Dan Zancu (bass) – Baron Kemény, Governor of Transylvania; Lucian Marinescu (baritone) – Baron Nyíl; Matilda Onofrei-Voiculeţ (soprano) – Baroness Hunfy; Constantin Iliescu (tenor) – Nuţu, Baroness Hunfy’s serf; Nicolae Utziceanu (baritone) – Pavel, serf; Adrian Ştefănescu (bass) – Costan, Priest and several others
Orchestra and Chorus of the Romanian Opera, Bucharest/Cornel Trăilescu

rec. live, Romanian Opera, Bucharest, July 1980. MONO
Sung in Romanian. Full libretto and translations into English, German and French enclosed
NIMBUS NI 5513/4 [65:59 + 68:03]

Experience Classicsonline


The Romanian singer, conductor, composer, author and director Nicolae Bretan was born in Transylvania. He was proud of his roots but not in a nationalist way. His pride was in his humanity and early on he got to know Romanians, Hungarians, Germans and Jews. He learnt their songs and later composed several hundred songs to several of these languages, songs with a relation to the different cultures but at the same time borderless and timeless. It is possibly in his songs that his real greatness lies and I refer readers to reviews of a number of discs on Nimbus. (See bottom of this review).

He also wrote several operas during the inter-war years and Horia has claims to being his masterpiece. It is based on real historical events, an uprising by serfs in Transylvania in 1784 - five years before the French Revolution. The aim was largely the same: to get rid of oppression from the gentry. A troika of leaders was chosen by the serfs, who were mainly Romanians but also Hungarians, and the supreme commander was Horia. The uprising failed and Horia and the other leaders were executed; before that Horia’s wife had been killed, his daughter raped and her betrothed Ionel committed suicide. Horia lives in the consciousness of the Romanian people and stands as a symbol of humanity and freedom.

The opera follows the progression of the uprising and the final defeat of the serfs. It is in seven emotionally charged scenes the fervour of which is carried through the music and the profound passion of the libretto. It ends when the soldiers are about to execute the leaders of the revolt but the scene dissolves and the wives and daughters of the serfs are given the last word, singing – in Michael Impey’s English translation:

Death passes through the garden,
Snapping flowers at the root,
And Horia at the heart,
And Horia at the heart.
Mother dear, daughter dear,
Give me your hand and forgive me,
If I have erred toward you,
If I ever erred toward you,
Give me your hand and forgive me!

In the midst of death and disaster there is a ray of hope, of faith in the future. These women are going to carry on life – and one day freedom will be theirs.

Nicolae Bretan believed in humanity and this message is to the fore in this opera, especially in Horia’s monologues. Alas, Bretan was not rewarded for his belief in mankind. His wife’s entire family was deported to Auschwitz and killed in 1944. Four years later, when he refused to join the Communist Party in Romania, he was declared a non-person by the authorities and his works were banned. Not until after his death was he rehabilitated and only then were his works again performed. Several of the song discs mentioned were recorded in the early-to-mid-1970s at the same time as the staging of his operas. Even in 1980, when the present live recording was made, the original text was changed in some places "as biblical references were banned in Communist Romania at the time …"

Recorded at actual performances in monaural sound, with stage noises, a clean but constricted and fairly distant orchestra and a number of soloists that were past their best or maybe second-rate singers, this might appear a non-starter. However in reality it is far from a write-off. Such is the power of the drama, the humanity of the libretto and the expressive qualities of the music. Being a drama about revolution the music is anything but revolutionary, considering the times in which it was written. There are no jarring disharmonies, no barnstorming modernity. Instead Nicolae Bretan has, just as in his songs, found a tonal, melodic idiom that perfectly carries his message. This is achieved without offending the ear and makes every righteous human being react to oppression, violence and inhumanity. This is done in a tonal language that has its roots in late Verdi as well as in Mussorgsky. There are few real arias but the monologues and dialogues, more often than not, are condensed into arioso episodes and very often the music is achingly beautiful. At the end of scene 1, there is a long duet for two basses, no doubt inspired by the Philippo–Inquisitor scene in Don Carlo. In the second scene there is a duet for Ionel and Ilona that grows to a trio with Dochia. Again this is very Verdian and deploys a melody that sticks in the memory (CD 1 tr. 8-9). A little later there is an episode for women’s choir with reminiscences of Puccini’s Humming chorus from Butterfly. Some patriotic choruses and warlike orchestral music may seem close to the nationalist music of 1930s Soviet Union, but they fill a need, just as Gott erhalte Franz der Kaiser is quoted after the death sentences have been pronounced in the final scene. There, close to the end, Horia’s farewell monologue to his daughter is deeply gripping. Gheorghe Crăsnaru softens his voice and sings with a warmth that he signally fails to muster earlier in the opera.

The cast list is long, in toto 26 roles; it goes without saying that few opera houses have the resources to fill a production of these dimensions with world class singers. Dan Zancu as Baron Kemény has a splendid black bass. Cornelia Pop’s Ileana is also good, especially in the last scene. Others are wobbly or strained to a greater or lesser degree, but every role, however small, is sung with involvement and conviction. The choruses, both male and female, also give a good impression.

The accompanying book (208 pages) has valuable essays on Nicolae Bretan, the background of this opera, a synopsis and full texts and translations – exemplary presentation!

In the ideal world one could hope for a new recording in better sound and with a classier cast. However I doubt this will happen in the near future and once one gets involved in the performance it’s easy to disregard occasional weaknesses and instead concentrate on the drama, which unfolds mercilessly. I urge readers who want to widen their operatic horizons to give Horia a try. I don’t think anyone will be disappointed, either on musical or dramatic grounds.

Göran Forsling

Other Bretan reviews

My Lieder-Land Volume 1

My Lieder-Land Volume 2 RECORDING OF THE MONTH (April)

SONGS Ruxandra Donose (sop)

SONGS Alexandru Agache (baritone)

Sacred Songs




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