Polish National Opera at Sadler’s Wells – The Haunted Manor (20 April)

Straszny Dwór (The Haunted Manor)

The Sword-bearer, Master of Kalinowo – Adam Kruszewski
Hanna – Iwona Hossa
Jadwiga – Anna Lubanska
Damazy – Krzysztof Szmyt
Stefan – Dariusz Stachura
Zbigniew – Piotr Nowacki
The Lady Chamberlain – Stefania Toczyska
Maciej – Zbigniew Macias
Skoluba – Romuald Tesarowicz
Marta – Agnieszka Dabrowska
Grzes – Jacek Parol
Old Woman – Wanda Bargielowska-Bargeyllo

Chorus, Ballet and Orchestra of Polish National Opera
Jacek Kaspszyk

Director – Mikolaj Grabowski
Set design – Pawel Dobrzycki
Costume – Zofia de Ines
Choreography – Emil Wesolowski
Lighting – Stanislaw Zieba

Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell

Reviewed: 20 April, 2004
Venue: Sadler’s Wells, London

This was a hugely enjoyable evening. The stage works and even the songs of Stanislaw Moniuszko (1819-1872) have not travelled much out of their native Poland, and few apparently have a major hold within their national repertory so this was an opportunity to sample some of his evidently attractive music.

As far as I am aware even the Wexford Festival has only mounted one Moniuszko opera, this one, in 1999. And very tuneful music it is too. After three brooding and sombre tremolo chords the score simply fizzes and bristles along with much lyricism, tuneful ensembles and set dances – notably the energetic and lively Krakowiak and Mazurka of the final act – with the occasional set-piece aria or smaller ensemble moments for the soloists.

To our ears the style may seem rather reminiscent of the more familiar operas of Smetana, but the composer had his own elegance and some original sonic ideas in his orchestration, which the excellent orchestra played with great accomplishment and élan under the company’s Principal Conductor and General and Artistic Director, Jacek Kaspszyk. Particularly memorable was the eerie “off-stage” music that accompanied the motions of the haunted clock.

The story revolves round two brothers, Stefan and Zbigniew, recently discharged from the Military having been defending Poland’s borders and boundaries – scope for a few ensembles of nationalistic sentiment to get things off to a rousing start. Leaving their comrades in arms they declare their intention to remain bachelors for life so as to be always at the service of their country. On arrival home with their servant Maciej, they soon encounter their interfering old aunt, the Lady Chamberlain, who plans to marry them off to girls of her choosing. Protesting their vows of celibacy they depart for the Kalinowo Manor, the haunted residence of the title, ostensibly to collect dues from the Sword-bearer, an old friend of their father.

Unsurprisingly, he has two rather feisty daughters, Hanna and Jadwiga, currently both being courted by the elderly advocate Damazy, whom they twist around their little fingers and who is the butt of much teasing for his favoured French dress and ways. The Sword-bearer declares his future sons-in-law must be brave, patriotic and prepared to die for their country. Worried about her plans going awry Stefan and Zbigniew’s aunt has raced to Kalinowo, ahead of them, and proceeds to tell everyone about their bachelor vows and that they are superstitious and cowardly. Rather than putting the girls off, this incites them to teach the men a lesson; they are both immediately attracted to the girls and agree to test their courage by sleeping in the allegedly haunted tower of the manor. Damazy, aided by the Sword-bearer’s steward Skoluba, plans to see his rivals off the scene.

Act Three takes place in the tower. The girls hide behind pictures of their great-grandmothers to watch and play jokes on the young men. Skoluba tells Maciej, who is to accompany his masters overnight, about the clock that only now chimes when strangers are present and about the pictures coming to life. The clock actually hides Damazy. The two brothers cannot sleep and eventually confide in one another that they love the girls, and luckily not the same one, but then remind one another of their vows. The girls overhear this. Damazy then appears from the clock intending to scare his opponents away but instead startles the two girls who flee noisily, prompting the brothers to rush off to investigate.

Maciej catches Damazy, who tells the brothers that the reason the manor brings ill-fortune is that it was built on ill-gotten gains and dishonour. Not wishing to fall victim to this the two men and their servant decide to leave. The resolution is finally achieved when Damazy’s intrigue and spreading of misinformation is revealed by Maciej. Damazy admits he did this to eliminate his rivals, who promptly abandon their vows and propose to the girls. Their father then agrees to the marriages after explaining why the manor has its reputation – his grandfather having nine beautiful daughters deprived all the other girls of the area of young handsome husbands. The mothers of the unmarried girls spread the rumour out of spite.

“Tradition” seemed to be the not-entirely-serious theme of this colourful 2001 production. Indeed there was a delightful sense of performance-tradition being sent up slightly with moments that veered dangerously close to, but to the right side of, kitsch or even camp. The stage was is dominated by some monumental, rather old-fashioned sets of the Manor and the men’s childhood home – each stage-picture being mirrored by an artist painting the scenes at an easel set to the side of the stage. The haunted tower was a witty set also and there was some very amusing direction in this scene – particularly the girls holding hands through the paintings as they learnt that the two men loved them.

Costuming was also very colourful and “traditional” and the winter “picture postcard” setting of the final act was wittily realised, allowing the ballet dancers full reign to impress with their energetic dancing. This was staged very much in the vein of a classic Broadway musical, and not inappropriately. I liked the “nine brides for nine brothers” routine as the history of the manor was explained with each couple that emerged being dressed in ever more modern costume.

What of the singing? Well there were some real discoveries and welcome re-acquaintance with old friends in the Diva department! First to mention should be the two sisters. Jadwiga is initially the one who dominates and was sung here by Anna Lubañska who has a rich, even, velvety mezzo, wonderfully integrated throughout its range, allied to an appealing stage persona – a pity she has rather little to do later in the piece than vocally accompany her soprano sister. Hanna was sung by Iwona Hossa, who early in the evening seemed to disappear in the ensemble, though her delightfully airy top lines registered cleanly over ensembles where needed. In her solo moment at the start of the last act, where her character reflects on the strangeness of the men’s vows, she rather startled me, and I think the rest of the audience, by revealing a rather different voice – beautiful but penetrating, an astonishing control of dynamic and superb vocal agility. You could suddenly hear some of the early Verdi heroines in this voice – quite a discovery.

And speaking of Verdi – it was wonderful to see Stefania Toczyska on a London stage again, here singing the role of the aunt. She used to be a regular visitor to the Royal Opera House in the 1980s singing roles such as Azucena and a memorable Amneris in the otherwise best-forgotten Jean-Pierre Ponnelle production of Aida (though on reflection I’d prefer to see that Aida again rather then the more recent Robert Wilson one!). She was always an artist who could hold a stage, an ability she has not lost, and I am delighted to report that vocally she retains all her powers. We shall see and hear more of her in this week.

Perhaps the men were not all quite on this level. Piotr Nowacki, who sang Zbigniew, has an attractive and focussed baritone but is perhaps not the most interesting of stage performers – although that may be the part. His brother Stefan was sung by Dariusz Stachura, who early in the evening did not appear to be very relaxed and whose singing was somewhat strained and occasionally rather out of tune. He recovered for his big aria and from then on seemed rather happier, but again he was dramatically a bit of a cipher. Maybe romantic leads in these sorts of operas are generally not very interesting.

The character roles of Damazy and Miciej were nicely delivered both vocally and dramatically by Krzysztof Szmyt and Zbigniew Macias, and the wonderfully sonorous bass of Romuald Tesarowicz made much of Skoluba’s aria. I liked also the rock-solid and patrician tones of Adam Kruszewski’s Sword-bearer.

The chorus sang lustily throughout, its members seemed to be enjoying themselves in their variety of guises, although their direction was sometimes over-fussy and distracting.

I am not sure that Moniuszko’s works will probably ever experience more than very rare outings, but his attractive music has much to offer and the evening boasted some impressive singing from some young singers we hopefully will hear more of in the future. Definitely worth catching for a light evening in the opera house! A recording, with much the same cast, has just appeared on EMI 5574892 (2 CDs).

Polish National Opera’s London season at Sadler’s Wells continues with a further performance of The Haunted Manor tonight, 21 April, a concert performance of Szymanowski’s King Roger on the 22nd, and performances of Penderecki’s Ubu Rex on the 24th and 25th.

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