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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
Reviewed as downloaded from press preview
NAXOS 8.660485-86 [60:26 + 56:32]

Moniuszko composed many operas and operettas and is regarded as the father of Polish national opera. His best-known works are Straszny Dwór (The Haunted Manor), premiered in 1865, and Halka, his first opera, premiered in a concert performance in Vilnius in 1848 in a two-act version, six years later staged in the same city. He later enlarged it to four acts, and that version premiered in Warsaw in 1858. Musicologist Carl Dalhaus in his book Nineteenth-century Music describes Halka as “The Polish national opera” – no wonder when one listens to the music, permeated by Polish dances and highly attractive melodies in an idiom inspired by folk music.

The story also takes place in a rural milieu. After a colourful overture, which opens ominously but gradually lightens in tone, becoming rather optimistic and ending almost in rapture, the curtain opens, and we are in the castle of a wealthy landowner, where a large group of guests drink to the health of the betrothed couple Janusz (the landowner) and his bride-to-be Zofia. The chorus that follows is a polonaise, the most typical Polish folk dance. A simple peasant girl, Halka, appears, singing a beautiful melody about her longing for her sweetheart. It turns out that she is deeply in love with Janusz, her employer, with whom she has had an affair. Now she throws herself into his arms, they kiss, and he promises he will marry her. “Let’s meet in the evening”, he says – and ushers her out. In the background we can hear the guests, waiting for the dance to begin. It is a lively, even explosive mazurka – and a riveting end to the first act.

In the second act we are outside the palace, and Halka is waiting for Janusz. She still believes that he is in love with her. Someone approaches, but it isn’t Janusz, it is Jontek, a country boy who has been in love with Halka for ages but unrequited. He tries to make her understand that Janusz is an impostor. They have a violent row that alerts the guests in the garden. Janusz rushes out to stop the noise and denies that he knows Halka. He forces both to leave, and the act ends tumultuously.

The third act takes place on a Sunday afternoon in the countryside. The opening horn calls illustrate the rural idyll, where the peasants first sing and then dance some highland dances, fast and stirring. Now Halka and Jontek arrive, and the peasants get a shock when they see that the girl has gone mad. Jontek explains why and tells them that Halka is pregnant – with Janusz’s child! The anger among the peasants becomes menacing, and in the distance the wedding party approaches …

In the fourth act Janusz and Zofia with friends arrive at the church for the wedding ceremony and are greeted by the peasants, who have been persuaded by Janusz’s steward to do so out of respect for the bride. Zofia recognises Halka from the engagement party, and Janusz admits that they had an affair, but then he rushes into the church. Jontek watches the ceremony through the church window and reports to Halka, who becomes even more upset and decides to set fire to the church. But she changes her mind and comes back, shouting “Our baby is dying!” After that she throws herself into the river.

Strong feelings abound and Moniuszko grabs every opportunity for dramatic outbursts. Considering that this was his first opera, it is a surprisingly mature work, where each act builds up the tension to a final climax that inevitably leads to enthusiastic applause. But in-between there are lyrical moments with great beauty and grateful opportunities for, primarily, Halka to blossom out. Her arias in Act I (CD 1 tr 5), Act II (CD 1 tr 12) and Act IV (CD 2 tr 14) are true highlights. Magdalena Molendowska’s singing, vibrant but brilliant and engaging and with great sensitivity – NB the cavatina in the last act with cello obbligato – is a great asset in this recording.

Łukasz Goliński in the role of Janusz, is powerful and dramatically intensive but hardly beautiful in the real sense of the word. I remember him as a truly expressive singing-actor in the title role of Szymanowski’s Król Roger in Stockholm a couple of years ago, where his stage presence was tangible. The third main character, Jontek, is sung by Dominik Sutowicz, who sports a lirico-spinto tenor, somewhat dryish but with considerable power and great expressivity, and in his aria in the last act (CD 2 tr 9) he is very touching and sings with glow and brilliance. His singing there earns him a round of applause which, together with the highland dances in Act III, is the only occasion when the well-behaved audience make themselves heard – apart from applause at the end of acts.

The rest of the cast are more or less comprimarios and make honourable contributions. A central presence in this performance is the chorus, who are excellent in dramatic scenes – which are legion – as well as in the idyllic country scene in act III, where they sing with homogenous tone, just as they do in the prayer in the church scene in the last act. They, as well as the orchestra, are certainly on their home-ground in this music.

Conductor Gabriel Chmura, Polish-born but mainly active abroad for the greater part of his career, returned to his native country in 2001, when he was appointed Music Director of the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra Katowice, and in August 2012 he became the artistic director of the Poznan Opera. It was then he dusted off the score of Halka and became convinced that “Moniuszko was not just one of those thousands of long-lost composers, whose pieces were nothing remarkable” as he writes in the liner notes. Sadly, he passed away in November 2020, only a year after this recording was made. It is a worthy memorial to one of the great Polish musical personalities. Any opera lover, Polish or not, should derive a lot of pleasure from this recording.

Göran Forsling




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