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Stanisław MONIUSZKO (1819-1872)
Straszny dwór (The Haunted Manor) (1865)
Miecznik – Leszek Skrla (baritone)
Hanna – Anna Fabrello (soprano)
Jadwiga – Karolina Sikora (mezzo-soprano)
Damazy – Ryszard Minkiewicz (tenor)
Zbigniew – Stanisław Daniel Kotliński (bass-baritone)
Stefan – Paweł Skałuba (tenor)
Maciej – Krzysztof Bobrzecki (baritone)
Skoł uba – Piotr Lempa (bass)
Cześnikowa – Stefania Toczyska (mezzo-soprano)
Marta – Alicja Rumianowska (mezzo-soprano)
Grześ – Piotr Kusiewicz (tenor)
Ochmistrzyni – Wiesława Maliszewska (alto)
Konstanty Andrzej Kulka (solo violin)
Choirs and Symphony Orchestra of the Stanisław Moniuszko Academy of Music in Gdańsk/Zygmunt Rychert
rec. live, Stanisław Moniuszko Academy of Music Concert Hall in Gdańsk, 11-12 May 2018
No libretto but a rather extensive synopsis enclosed
DUX 1500/1 [78:23 + 66:14]

Only a couple of months ago I reviewed a disc with songs by Moniuszko, performed by Leszek Skrla. I wasn’t very enthusiastic about his singing then and the impression of him in the central role of Miecznik on this recording is far from flattering either. But just as Moniuszko’s songs – there are about 300 of them – are eminently worth hearing, so is Straszny dwór. It is in fact as a developer of a Polish national opera tradition that he is best remembered. Halka, first performed in a 2-act version in 1848 and ten years later in an expanded version in four acts, is widely regarded as the Polish national opera with its patriotic contents and the use of Polish folk melodies. But Straszny dwór, premiered in 1865 is also held in high esteem and some judges rate it even higher than Halka. The patriotic and nationalist themes are central also here, which led to it being banned after only three performances by the censorship of the Russian Empire, which controlled Poland at the time. It was never played again during Moniuszko’s lifetime. Polish songs and dances (Mazurkas, Polonaises, Varsoviennes, Polkas, Dumkas, and Krakowiaks) are an integrated part of a score that is skilfully constructed and colourfully orchestrated.

The story, which is a romance and a comedy, deals with two brothers, Stefan and Zbigniew, returning from the war, intent on not getting married, since they want to be ready to lay down their lives for their country when needed. "For if I married a lovely woman, how could I leave her to go to war?". This intention is challenged by their aunt Czesnikowa, who has already made up plans to marry them off to two girls she has already chosen for them. The brothers explain their decision and inform the aunt that they now are going to visit Miecznik, an old friend of their father’s, to collect some money. This is a serious unforeseen obstacle for aunt Czesnikowa since Miecznik, who lives in a manor at Kalinow, has two beautiful daughters, Hanna and Jadwiga, and she fears the brothers will fall in love with them. She says: “Don’t go there. The manor is haunted!”

Of course they go anyway but Czesnikova manages to get there before them with the intention to describe Stefan and Zbigniew as cowards in order to put Miecznik and his daughters off. This leads to customary complications but in the end the brothers declare their love to the sisters, Miecznik gives his blessing to the couples and everybody is happy, except for a couple of rejected suitors of the sisters – and aunt Czesnikowa.

The music is spirited, there are several attractive ensembles and solo arias. The lively overture followed by a likewise lively chorus puts the listener in the right mood and there is a plethora of light-hearted melodious music. A fine terzetto (CD 1 tr. 3) in the first act has a fine clarinet solo as intro, the second act opens with a beautiful women’s chorus (CD 1 tr. 6) and Miecznik’s aria in polonaise rhythm (CD 1 tr. 10) is a number sometimes heard in recitals. In act III follows the probably most famous piece, Stefan’s Aria with Chimes (CD 2 tr. 2). Hanna’s recitative and aria, which opens act IV (CD 2 tr. 6) is another highlight, and then there is a boisterous finale, when everything is sorted out, followed by a long optimistic mazurka – a kind of Post Scriptum.

The recording was made live at two performances in the Stanislaw Moniuszko Academy of Music Concert Hall in Gdansk in May 2018, but there are no signs of an audience present, no applause after the mazurka at the end even. Orchestra and chorus are excellent and the recording first class. The drawbacks are two: 1) There is a very comprehensive synopsis in English but I would have liked a full libretto with translations; 2) Some of the singing is poor with worn and wobbly voices, even though drama and expressivity is there in full measure. Fortunately some of the leading roles are well taken. Piotr Lempa’s gorgeous bass as Skoluba is a joy to hear, Stanislaw Daniel Kotlinski is a fully acceptable Zbigniew, while Pawel Skaluba as his brother Stefan is impressive in many ways but his brilliant fortissimos stick out as uncomfortably hard. Karolina Sikora is a good Jadwiga – her Dumka in the second act (CD 1 tr. 7) is worth an extra listen – and Anna Fabrello is truly excellent as Hanna with beautiful tone and easy coloratura. Her recitative and aria in the last act (CD 2 tr. 6) is great. But the greatest singing of all is delivered by the legendary mezzo-soprano Stefania Toczyska as Aunt Czesnikova. Here is truly classy singing, not a sign of loosening vibrato or wobble – and her expressivity is magical. One shouldn’t reveal a lady’s age but she had just turned 75 when the recording was made!

Straszny Dwór, which is rarely heard outside Poland, is certainly an opera worth any opera lover’s acquaintance, and this brand new recording is a good way to get to know it. The weaknesses accounted for above are more than compensated by the obvious strengths.

Göran Forsling

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