(b. Ubiel nr. Minsk, 5 May 1819 – d. Warsaw, 4 June 1872)
Overture to the Opera Halka
Instrumentation: 1 flute (pic), 2 ob, 2 cl, 2 bn, 4 hn, 2 tpt, 3 tbn, tuba, strs, timp, perc
Duration: ca. 9 min.
Vilnius, 1846. The Polish composer Stanisław Moniuszko, writing to the influential Warsaw musicographer Józef Sikorski (1813–1896), had a special request to make: he wanted Sikorski to help him find a suitable librettist in Warsaw. Moniuszko had long toyed with the thought of writing an opera, but he never found anyone in Vilnius capable of producing a libretto that matched his ideas. Soon thereafter he set out for Warsaw and met Włodzimierz Wolski (1824-1882), who gladly accepted the assignment and turned out a libretto based on his earlier poem, Halka.
The story relates the fate of the young Halka (Helen). It opens with celebrations for the engagement of Janusz and Zofia, a young, highly regarded, well-to-do aristocratic couple. Suddenly a peasant girl bursts into the merry company. It is Halka, who is in love with Janusz. He once promised to love her forever, but in reality she was no more to him than a brief and insignificant fling. Jontek, who is in love with Halka, tries to convince her of Janusz’s faithlessness. But only with Janusz und Zofia’s wedding does she realize the truth. Seeing no escape, she takes her life in abject despair.
By clearly underlining the contradictions and problems inherent to society at that time, Wolski’s libretto wields a sharp social critique. All the more surprising, then, that it was later developed into such a successful and seminal opera. What is it that makes Halka so special, that raised it to the level of myth and made it the Polish national opera?
To examine this phenomenon, we must turn to the opera’s genesis. Moniuszko wanted his first opera to be premièred in Warsaw as early as 1848. Yet although it had already entered rehearsal, the performance never materialized, presumably because of the critical depiction of the aristocracy. In the end, the première took place on a smaller scale in Vilnius. The opera, consisting of two acts, was heard for the most part in a concert performance without sets or costumes. The music was given a rousing reception, but the libretto was almost uniformly reviled. In short, at first the opera failed to meet Moniuszko’s expectations of success. This, too, had to do with its strong critique of society. But most of all, the staging failed to kindle the emotions that would have arisen from a lavish mise en scène. Nor was the work seen as particularly Polish: Vilnius, being a city in Lithuania, was not part of Poland’s native culture, and the audience saw no connection with “nationalist” music. This setback ensured that many years had to pass before Moniuszko composed another opera.
With the political liberalization that set in with the royal succession in 1855, Halka finally received its Warsaw première on 1 January 1858. The libretto was again heavily criticized, but the criticism was far outweighed by enthusiasm for the music. To quote a popular Polish columnist of the time, Józef Kenig (1821-1900), “This dramatic, ever-artful, and well-conceived music immediately ingratiated itself into our heart” (Gazeta Warszawska, 2 January 1858). In short, the Warsaw performance was far more warmly received than the one in Vilnius.
Another reason for this was presumably that Moniuszko had revised and expanded his opera. It now consisted of four acts and contained nine numbers that were “Polish” in character. For example, a Polish folk dance, a mazurka, was incorporated into Act 1. Besides the Góral dances, which originated among the like-named western Slavic people, an important role was played by a scene at the beginning of Act 4. Here a musician from the people appears with a kobza (a lute-like folk instrument) and strikes up an aria. The sound of the kobza considerably heightens the original “Polish” character of this aria. Again to quote Józef Kenig, “These few bars
210 x 297 mm