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Stanisław MONIUSZKO (1819-1872)
Halka - Opera in four acts (1848, rev. 1858)
Jontek – Dominik Sutowicz (tenor)
Halka – Magdalena Molendowska (soprano)
Janusz – Łukasz Goliński (bass-baritone)
Stolnik – Rafał Korpik (bass)
Zofia – Magdalena Wilczyńska-Gos (mezzo)
Dziemba – Damian Konieczek (bass)
Highlander – Piotr Friebe (tenor)
Piper, Guest I – Bartołomiej Szceszek (tenor)
Guest II – Piotr Maclejowski (tenor)
Guest III, Guest IV – Andrzej Ogórkiewicz (bass-baritone)
Poznań Opera House Chorus and Orchestra/Gabriel Chmura
rec. live 11 November 2019, Poznań Opera House, Poland
The Polish libretto and an English translation can be accessed at the Naxos website
NAXOS 8.660485-86 [60:26 + 56:32]

Polish composer Stanisław Moniuszko’s Halka is one of those operas from the mid-19th century which are hugely important in their countries of origin, but which have never made any real headway outside them. Works such as Glinka’s Ruslan and Lyudmila for Russia, Erkel’s Hunyadi Laszlo for Hungary, various operas of Smetana for the Czechs, even Der Freischütz, Germany’s equivalent, are of seminal importance as the foundation of a nationalist school of opera, grounded in the characteristics of the country’s folksong, but their popularity remains almost entirely within their own countries. The Wikipedia entry for Halka states that the first performance in Britain was in Hammersmith in 2009, but I first came across this opera when the Polish Chamber Opera brought the work to the Brighton Festival in May 1984. I knew nothing about the piece, so, being young and enthusiastic, I went to some trouble to find a recording so that I could do some homework beforehand. I managed to find an excellent 1955 performance on Muza LPs which, like the version under review, used the forces of Poznan Opera. Its cast included Antonina Kawecka as Halka, Waclav Domieniecki as Jontek and Marian Wozniczko as Janusz under Walerian Bierdiajew. I fell in love with the piece. I remember that much was made in the Brighton Festival advertising of the performance being the first time the “original version” of 1848 was to be performed in Britain. What this “original version” turned out to be was the opera more or less as I had come to know it, but with almost all the arias missing! It was the start of my cynicism about the whole “original version” malarkey which has become such a fetish over the last 40 years. As far as I can discover, that Muza recording has never been put onto CD, but is available as a download.

The plot is pretty standard operatic fustian: innocent soprano (Halka) is loved by good tenor (Jontek), but she loves bad baritone (Janusz). He takes advantage of her, then leaves her to marry a rich girl (Zofia), so she kills herself. Halka is a peasant girl and Janusz a wealthy landowner, which helps to explain why Halka kept a place in the repertoire in the Soviet Union; it tied in nicely with Stalin’s decision to obliterate the Kulaks (wealthy landowners) after they refused to cooperate with the collectivisation of farms in 1930. There is a very fine 1950s recording in Russian with Sokolova, Nelepp and Lisitsian under Kondrashin. CPO issued a recording in 1986 with Zagorzanka, Ochman and Hiolski under Satanowski, and recently a rather bizarre recording with “original instruments” but using an Italian translation (despite being made in Poland) was issued. Moniuszko makes considerable use of Polish musical forms such as the mazurka and dumka, especially in the ballet sequence which celebrates the wedding of Janusz and Zofia, but also the arias. One of the two most famous excerpts is the tenor aria which is often referred to on old record labels simply as “Jontek’s dumka”.

I’ve read a couple of reviews of the present set which have been full of praise for Magdalena Molendowska’s Halka, but I fear that I cannot be anywhere near as enthusiastic. Her voice is pleasant in the middle, but it is clearly a very short one and almost every note above the stave has a squally edge. She isn’t really comfortable above A (and by no means always even there) and none of the B-flats is pleasant, particularly the one at the end of the duet with Janusz in Act 1 sc 4. Like most aspects of this set, she is generally better in the more dramatic parts; this is to a considerable extent the fault of the conductor, who is regularly inflexible and just that bit too fast, but it is not entirely down to him. Her Act 2 aria “Gdyby rannym slonkiem”, which is the other piece which has a life outside the opera, is a case in point. The recitative is largely uninflected, and the aria is too fast and lacking any change of colour and emotion in the middle section beginning “Gdyby mnie gwiazdeczka”. Molendowska also ignores the “dolce” at “Ani ja w Wiselce” and ends the aria with another unfortunate B flat. Not everything is so disappointing, though, and she is at her best in final scene. Her singing of the cavatina “O, moi malenki” is lovely, and she gets some real drama into the succeeding “O serce gdzie?” Her final cantilena “Jazbym cie miala zabic” has real sensitivity to Halka’s predicament. It is a real curate’s egg of a performance.

Dominik Sutowicz’s Jontek is a much more consistently fine performance. His is a darkish tenor, not quite baritonal, but certainly edging in that direction. It could be argued that his vibrato is a little wide, but taste in vibrato is a very personal thing, and I certainly didn’t find it remotely disturbing. Unlike Molendowska, he has no problem with the top of the voice, though his part, like Halka’s, does not go above B-flat, so it not possible to know whether he has a good B or C. He is also more attentive to dynamic grading than the other two principals and can use of the vocal line dramatically. His Act 4 dumka “Szumia jodly” is very well done; the recitative is phrased with great sensitivity and drama, responding to all the various emotional states through which Jontek moves over the scene’s course. The only detail I didn’t like was the phrase “Rosnie krzaczek w drzewko, rosnie” where the score is marked “dolce”, but Sutowicz sings staccato. The words (referring to Halka) mean “I couldn’t get you to stay”, so the interpretation works verbally, but it seems to me to contradict the music’s meaning at this point, and, as Joseph Kerman wrote in Opera as Drama 65 years ago “In opera, the composer is dramatist”. This, however, is the merest nit-picking, and I enjoyed Sutowicz’s performance very much.

Janusz has the least to do of the three principals. Golinski is a very decent baritone with a good top and a solid, healthy timbre, but he is not the most imaginative of singers, tending to side roughshod over the dynamic markings. He it at his best in the duet with Jontek in Act 2 Sc 4, where Jontek begs Janusz to take care of Halka and is given very short shrift. The pair of them build up a fine head of dramatic steam without ever resorting to shouting, and it is one of the highlights of the set. All the other characters are essentially comprimarios, and all make a decent job of what little they have to do.

About the conductor, Gabriel Chmura, I will again have to take a somewhat different position to that of some other reviewers. He was apparently a considerable Moniuszko scholar, held in high esteem, and the notes he wrote for the set are very fine. He died in 2020 aged 74 after a conducting career of almost 50 years, but he is not my sort of conductor. He very much inhabits the present Zeitgeist, however, being one of the many whom I think of as “School of Solti”. If the music requires liveliness, excitement, precision, rhythmic snap, then he is your man, but he has little interest in the more refined, contemplative, sustained aspects. He does not ask from either the orchestra or soloists any real legato, and his tempi are regularly just that bit too fast to allow the music to make its full impact. The exciting bits are certainly that, though the mazurka at the end of Act 1 is positively ferocious, which isn’t really what a scene of peasant merrymaking requires. In the Mountaineers’ Dance in Act 3, there isn’t a hint of grace, and the qualifying part of its tempo indication “Allegro non troppo” is ignored. The ballet music in Act 4 is no better.  Too often his phrasing is perfunctory and he seems just impatient.

The orchestra is excellent, though as so often nowadays the strings are virtually without vibrato, making the conductor’s lack of any real sense of legato even more trying. The chorus is similarly very fine, having precision and dramatic excitement at the end of Act 3 and a most beautiful sustained tone and line in the prayer in Act 4 (which, incidentally, starts as a dead ringer for “Deck the halls with boughs of holly”).

The sound quality is very good, with clarity and a fine balance between voices and orchestra. The solo voices never disappear, as they so often did in older live recordings which relied on static microphones. There is a small amount of applause at the ends of acts but only one example where it intrudes. This is after Jontek’s dumka, when the conductor does not stop for any applause, so it happens during the early bars of the orchestral introduction to Act 4 Sc 3.

One thing that I do find very irritating is the number of cuts that are made. There are cuts at the end of Act 1 Sc 1, the end of Act 2 Sc 4, a big cut in the Duettino in Act 4 Sc 4 and the whole of (admittedly very short) Act 2 Sc 3 is missing. Surely we have got beyond doing such things today? It certainly wasn’t because of CD time constraints - there is 40 minutes of potential space on them. A very good thing is the provision of a full libretto in Polish with an English translation (translations usually being missing from Naxos libretti). It is available only online, but on a budget label like Naxos that seems to me to be perfectly fair. It is a great improvement on what some much more expensive issues have provided for sets which I have recently reviewed.

Overall, then, this is a mixed bag, but if you don’t know this delightful opera, here is a very respectable way of getting to know it at a very reasonable price.

Paul Steinson

Previous review: Göran Forsling

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