Although his operas Halka
are known outside Poland, at least by reputation,
as the foundations of Polish opera, I would doubt if many other
than specialists could name even one of his other works. There
were in fact some sixteen or so operas and operettas as well as
much instrumental and vocal music. Flis
was written in
between his two better known works. It has a plot that is more
than usually bizarre – Zosia, the daughter of Antoni, a wealthy
fisherman, is in love with Franek, a brave but poor raftsman.
She has been betrothed to Jakub, a barber (described as a salon
hairdresser in the translation) and cannot persuade her father
to break the betrothal. Franek decides therefore to leave the
village to seek his long-lost brother, but in duet with Jakub
the latter is revealed to be that brother, and Jakub therefore
stands aside to allow Franek to marry Zosia. It is unsurprising
that such feeble stuff did not inspire music of great emotional
depth in the composer, and the buffo
elements, mainly connected
with Jakub, are very tame - no mention of a strawberry mark, even.
What makes it worth hearing is what I take to be its strong folk influence. The Overture begins with a lovely slow section followed by a dance-like allegro
which is turn leads to a chorus describing the progress of a summer storm. Later there is a choral prayer and an aria in the form of a dumka
for Zosia. All of these are delightful, if scarcely at the level of inspiration of his two better known works.
The booklet tells us that The Castle Opera was founded in Szczecin in 1956 and now performs in the Pomeranian Duke’s Castle. It also says that it is the only opera company in Poland that has all of Moniuszko’s operas in its repertoire. It is therefore perhaps unsurprising that the performance sounds thoroughly idiomatic even if the singers are not individually impressive and some have a somewhat rough and ready approach to intonation. The orchestra is good, the chorus much less so. All in all it is comparable to, say, the D’Oyly Carte recordings of the 1950s where the authenticity of approach made up for - or did not, depending upon your view - substantial shortcomings in technical ability. The recording has an occasional tendency to boom but is otherwise acceptable. The booklet has a translation whose general meaning is clear but seems to owe something to P.G. Wodehouse (“Here comes the blighter”, “What a brave chap”, “C’mon brothers, get to work”, “I know what are corsets” and so on). It all adds to the humour of the opera, and as I have criticized many recent issues of little known operas for not including a libretto it would be churlish to object to the helpful if unintentionally comic effort included here. On the contrary Dux should be congratulated for continuing to provide this essential but nowadays unfashionable addition to recorded opera.
It would be an exaggeration to describe this as other than a minor work most likely to appeal to those with a special interest in opera, especially nationalist opera, of the period, or in Polish opera in particular. Such an enthusiast will need no recommendation to buy this – alternative recordings are few. Others wanting to explore Moniuszko’s works would do better to start with Halka