Overture to the Opera Paria
(b. Ubiel nr. Minsk, 5 May 1819 – d. Warsaw, 4 June 1872)
Instrumentation: 1 flute (pic), 2 ob, 2 cl, 2 bn, 4 hn, 2 tpt, 3 tbn, tuba, strs, timp, perc
Duration: ca. 10 min.
“After the lovely Flis, Hrabina, and Jawnuta, it is now high time for a second Halka; we demand and expect it.” Gazeta Codzienna, no. 145 (6 June 1860). The burden of expectation on Stanisław Moniuszko’s opera Paria was heavy indeed.
Moniuszko had already taken an interest in the tragedy Le Paria (1821) by Casimir Jean-François Delavigne (1793-1843) at the early age of seventeen. He lit on the idea of turning the material into an opera, translated it into Polish, and sent it to Vilnius, where he settled in 1840 to work as a composer, organist, and piano teacher. Some twenty years later Jan Chęciński (1826-1874), with whom Moniuszko had already collaborated on the operas Straszny Dwór, Beata, and Verbum Nobile, wrote a libretto after Delavigne’s play. The bond between the composer and his librettist was considerably strengthened by their joint labors on Paria.
Delavigne’s tragedy tells the story of a young Indian man named Idamor, who was born into the lowest level of society, the Pariah caste. However, his heroism enables him to rise to one of the highest levels when he is made the leader of the warrior caste. His fiancée Neala, the daughter of the high priest, belongs to the highest rung of society, which despises the Pariahs. But Neala’s love for Idamor is greater still. Since she alone knows of his past, there are no obstacles to their marriage. But as the day of the wedding arrives, Idamor’s father appears and betrays his son’s origins, after which the young man is punished for entering the temple’s forbidden precincts. Idamor, livid with rage, hurls abuse at the high priest and is condemned to death. Neala is cursed by her father and sent into exile together with Idamor’s father.
Although the material – a tragic love story – is typical of Moniuszko, the emphasis falls on the critique of the caste system. It comes as no surprise that the composer, who was born into the aristocracy, showed such keen interest precisely in this tragedy. Most of his operas question political données and the structure of society. Though Moniuszko himself did not pursue the political aims of the Polish national movement, he reflected them in his music. Nevertheless, or perhaps precisely because of the critical view of political activities he displayed in his works, he was considered a nationalist composer both by the bourgeois public and by Poland’s musical press.
Though Moniuszko was known for the speed with which he wrote his operas, he was unable to complete Paria in good time (we will have more to say about this later). Because of his many long interruptions, the première did not take place until 11 December 1869, only three years before his death. In contrast to the success of his other works, the opera was dropped from the repertoire after only six performances.
The audiences and critics who lionized Moniuszko as a national composer after the triumphant success of Halka expected one of his typical compositions with the customary national subject-matter, and hoped to find figures they could identify with. But Moniuszko banked on the intellectual acumen of his audience, hoping that it would be able to follow his train of thought and project the oriental story onto the Polish nation. The serious subject-matter was important to him for several reasons. Besides his longstanding passion for the topic, he hoped that the opera would also find recognition abroad. It is thus not surprising that he was seized by the oriental craze and sought to depict the world outside of Europe, drawing parallels between Indian and Polish society. Exotic topics such as the one he chose for his libretto were fashionable in the Age of Romanticism, and their popularity kept the opera houses packed. Moreover, the name of Delavigne was meant to attract attention and have a positive impact on the opera’s success. The author of Le Paria had already become known through his tragedy Les Vêpres Siciliennes, which served as the basis of Giuseppe Verdi’s like-named opera. Perhaps, by drawing on another Delavigne tragedy, Moniuszko hoped for a similarly successful result.
But the spectators were unable to construe Paria as a national opera. Its critique of society either passed unnoticed, preventing the reinterpretation Moniuszko had hoped for, or was seen in a negative light. Even in the reviews of his greatest theatrical success, Halka, the conservative press declined to come to terms with its social criticism. The same aspect was ignored in the reviews of Paria.
The fact that the story takes place in India likewise contributed to the work’s misinterpretation. The audience seemed perplexed by the unfamiliar scene of the action. Bereft of Moniuszko’s typical figures and locales, the spectators now expected to be given an exotic, romanticized dream journey into a fairy-tale world. Their expectations were thwarted by Moniuszko’s musical idiom: instead of exotic local color they heard harmonies and sonorities from European art music coupled with Polish motifs and rhythms, particularly from the mazurka. The familiar musical style, the customary love story, and the social criticism in Paria make it clear that in this opera, too, Moniuszko basically remained true to his position as a musical commentator on Poland’s national issues, or even its national composer. But audiences of 1869 were unwilling or unable to recognize this fact. The responses to Paria betray confusion, helplessness, and incomprehension. The audience had difficulties in categorizing the work and mainly criticized the figures in the story, who evidently left them unmoved and were unable to engage their empathy or concern. In short, audiences of the time heard in Paria neither a “national” opera nor an exotic fairy-tale.
To avoid having to discuss the opera’s contents, the press focused mainly on Moniuszko’s style of composition. As a result, the reasons for the lack of enthusiasm were rarely or at best indirectly touched on. Wherever possible, the reviewers tried to cloak their criticism in praise. But even here opinions were divided. On the one hand Moniuszko’s personal style and intelligence were singled out. The Kurier Warszawski (no. 274 of 13 December 1869) opined that “however difficult it is to warm to this work, we must admire it all the same.” That Moniuszko was more inclined to artistic experimentation here than in other works was noted and appreciated. Elsewhere compositional anomalies, such as unusual modulations, were proclaimed “faulty” or “wrong.”
Above all, this three-act number opera differed from Moniuszko’s previous compositions in its dramatic structure. In contrast to number opera, which by then had been largely supplanted by through-composed opera, we find an experimental bent primarily manifest in Moniuszko’s adoption of the Wagnerian style. Besides their similar handling of the brass, this is particularly apparent in the Paria Overture, a musical summary of the opera’s principal themes: namely, the love story and its consequences. The emotions depicted range widely from rage to sorrow, from despair to tender love. The overture thereby prepares the listener for the events to come while conveying the impression of a self-contained composition by condensing the story line. ..
Read full preface / Komplettes Vorwort > HERE