Stanislaw Moniuszko: Halka (1858)

Opera in four acts: Running Time: 2 hours 2 minutes

This opera basically is the entirely of Polish opera. There are other Polish operas, even one other by Moniuszko that is more famous in Poland (Straszny dwor) but if anyone has heard a Polish opera outside of Poland that wasn’t by Szymanowski, this is probably it. In any case it is the only one I’ve ever heard that I’ve liked so here it goes. I chose the 1858 dating because the version reviewed here is the later four-act version.

PLOT: Janusz is to be married to Sofia Stolnikowska, the daughter of a landowner who is even wealthier than he is. Meanwhile, Janusz has seduced and abandoned the pregnant Halka, one of his serfs, who is in turn loved by Jontek, a fellow serf who knows that Janusz will never come back to her. Tragedy ensues, obviously.

The score is at Petrucci in Polish and Italian:

Act 1: A ballroom in the mansion of Stolnikow (41 minutes)

0: The overture ** is a series of leitmotifs, starting with death, a flute that goes up, then down, then up again and is echoed by the horns and basses. This is followed by a rustic peasant-like tune that gives way to some bangs and then the death motif again. It is taken up this time by the clarinet and the strings. The flute comes back and then the rustics, but this time more developed and then a crescendo and crash, bang, back to the death motif. Then the strings develop into a triumphant waltz and then a furious version of death again. The orchestra goes crazy, into a dance like tune and then crash again and dies away slowly until it turn into, wait for it, the flute of death. We have some strings and woodwinds scurrying around, building to something you know will be spectacular, a noble theme, then crash Romance is gloriously sustained for around forty seconds then another building up bells and cymbals everywhere with strings racing around and then minor rising then major then rustic in light strings and bang ecstasy and then with nine bangs it is over. This is a rather weak orchestration of the overture, others include the orchestra banging it out at force nine half the time like it’s the Ride of the Valkyries and in that case, you will be weeping at the end. I know I was.

9: Scary brooding music and a military-like theme leads us into of all things an amazingly melodic yet militaristic Polonaise **. The bass is Dziemba, Stolnikow’s butler, who will be slightly important at the end of the opera, and the male chorus consists of the guests for the engagement party. The orchestra dances around the entire time like it’s on something, maybe Valium?

14: The trio (Janusz/Zofia/Stolnik) sounds like it was lifted from a very late Donizetti opera, except it’s in Polish**.

17: Halka’s mad little song ***, incredibly haunting, and it comes back a lot. Zofia wants to know who the strange girl is. Janusz: Dunno. But she calls her lover Jaszko and an eagle, Janusz?

19: The second part of the trio is a bit more melodic than the first **, another dance-like tune.

21: Janusz’s aria, in which he blabs the entire story that Halka won’t be in a few minutes to the audience in a recitative, but the aria that follows is really, really melodic and foreboding **.

23,25: We finally meet Halka, and she has a lovely air ** based on her song from earlier. The middle part sounds like Tchaikovsky could have written it. But then she gets a bit agitated and then it goes into a dancing tune (aren’t they all here?) as the number becomes a duet with Janusz **. The chorus briefly is heard off stage. He promises to meet her at a Madonna statue outside, she will be waiting for him. She goes off to a dance tune.

32: The guests come back toasting Janusz, they go off into a tune that sounds like the Polonaise from earlier but isn’t quite **. Watch the crescendo.

34: Stolnik blesses Janusz and Zofia to a waltz ** and then he orders another dance from Dziemba.

37: The last four minutes of the act is a Mazurka, one of the most forgettable ones you will ever hear, it is still stuck in my head nearly eight years after the first time I heard it **.

Act 2: The park on Stolnik’s estate, Madonna statue. (24 minutes)

1: An entr’acte flows directly into Halka waits for Janusz and prayers to the statue of the Virgin Mary. She also wonders where Jontek is. Melodically it is a bit all over the place some things sounds French, others Italian, but every idea is good **.

9: Jontek arrives and scares Halka*, listen for a theme around two minutes in from the woodwinds.

12: Jontek keeps laughing at her, Janusz does not love her he tells her but it is out one ear **. Two minutes in this turns into another dance-like theme and Jontek has an aria in which he tells Halka that Janusz is off her.

17: The chorus can be heard in the distance. Halka bombs out, Jontek is right, Janusz doesn’t love her anymore, in a racing recitative (including a bit from the overture) she wants Jontek to take her away **.

19: But Janusz arrives this leads into a confrontation and duet between he and Jontek, both discussing which could possibly love Halka more **.

22: This flows immediately into the finale when the guests, Zofia, and Stolnik arrive on the scene, a very fast and dramatic affair as Halka and Jontek run off from the crashed party **.

Act 3: A village owned by Janusz about one month later. (21 minutes)

0: Prelude time again *. Hints of Halka’s song from act 1 are played in a sunny way and then we find, yes, the first cord from the overture, symbolising death, or is it Halka?

3: The chorus **, starts with a lone a cappella tenor, then the rest of the chorus and orchestra slowly come out. Watch the tenors, they sing a reminder of Jontek’s aria from act 2. A dignified melody throughout going from a tenor solo for a villager and a Tchaikovsky-like choir.

8: A Goral dance **. It is basically a really fun dance number acting as an intermezzo (and filler) before Halka and Jontek show up in the village. Scenic, especially watch for the last minute or so where it takes on an almost Mozart sound.

13: After the villagers realize that Jontek and Halka have returned Jontek addresses the people to a lovely melody that is full of sadness. The villagers are enraged over Janusz’s up coming wedding to Zofia, enraged over Halka’s pregnancy which is Janusz’s fault, and now Halka is out of her mind thinking about a dove being torn to bits by a falcon.

19: The villagers vent out their rage in a great chorus ***, a black bird is seen overhead, a bad omen, as the curtain falls.

Act 4: Before the village church (36 minutes)

0: A brief orchestral introduction *, this time a new theme, a bit of what we will here Jontek sing in a few moments. He asks a piper why he plays a happy tune. The piper is getting ready for the wedding party which is about to arrive for the ceremony. It is a nature song.

6: Jontek thinks about all the forms of nature Halka reminds him of in a ravishing aria in which he addresses Halka by her real name Halina *** with that piper still hanging around.

10: The wedding part arrives. The villagers assembled have to be coerced to be nice by Dziemba. They give Stolnik a cool welcome, a somewhat hostile one to Janusz and then he spots Halka in the crowd, cutting off Zofia as she says hello to the villagers. They are much more welcoming to her, probably because they know that she is just a pawn being used by the men in her life, namely their employers. Then the chorus is ordered by Dziemba to pull off a magnificent little number *** which is broken in mid-flight by Halka

15: A “thinks” sextette ***, one of the most lilting numbers in the entire work, and that is saying something. Zofia thinks she recognizes Halka and asks her why she is so sad out of genuine concern, Janusz as guilty as sin and admits that Halka was the girl from the party, Jontek very noble and Halka less out of her mind than before. The chorus thinking how terrible all of this is as the wedding couple and guest go into the church to get on with the ceremony. Suddenly the chorus bursts into Halka’s theme from act 1 not once but twice times.

20: Halka has a brief duet with Jontek, she can not get over Janusz even though she know recognizes that he is about to marry Zofia. The organ starts to play, a chorus can be heard from the church **.

23: Halka wants to burn down the church and immolate everyone inside ala Khovanshchina act 5. She can not believe that Janusz has just left her like this. Her baby (their baby) is dead and she is all alone now (for some reason she completely ignores the fact that Jontek, her social equal, is deeply in love with her). There is another theme that will return more developed in the play out: water/river? The chorus from inside the church causes her to change her mind about killing absolutely everyone including the people who actually care about her like Jontek, suicide would be a much simpler solution to her problem so after ten minutes (watch for the melody nine minutes into the aria with the harp and organ when she goes just a little bel canto Italian on us) of this she throws herself into the local river to the flute playing the death theme from the very beginning of the opera. Then a crash from the orchestra fades away. Obviously *** albeit a slow one.

35: The play out **: the orchestra races around like a violent river, Jontek cries out Halka! Halka! the wedding party asks who has drowned, “Halka!” Jontek cries again with the chorus moaning her fate. Dziemba tries to get the chorus to sing a happy song for the wedding couple, this time it is obviously very half-hearted, but the orchestra climaxes manically (especially the drums which are on over-dose) as Zofia figures out everything just a few moments too late.

Halka is a disaster, but an incredibly melodic one. It is probably the greatest opera in Polish ever written and yet it has all of the appeal of Tristan und Isolde for someone who hates Wagner. The musical beauty of the work is so consistent, so unrelenting, that it makes its 2 hour running time almost unbearable because it is just too pretty. What is even more bizarre is that all of the versions of Halka (2 act original/4 act version we know today) were completed BEFORE Wagner completed Tristan and Moniuszko was certainly not influenced by it. Also, although Halka may be the Polish Tristan it is nothing musically like the later Wagner opera at all, it is actually a rather ordinary work based on Italian and French models. But what about those leitmotifs? I don’t know. This opera was originally written years before the premiere of Lohengrin so I doubt Wagnerian influence. Why is it the diatonic Tristan? Did Moniuszko come up with the idea on his own, most likely. What is definite though is that the work is very, very Polish. The Polonaise and Mazurka and Goral dances give this away if nothing else and all are of course excellent. What is wrong with the opera? Mostly the story (although not the libretto which has some rather excellent class awareness and subtlety to it such as the responds of the villagers to each of their three Szlachta overlords, they are much nicer to the bride than to her father and especially to the groom). The situation is profoundly heartbreaking, for everyone involved. Janusz is a jerk, but we still end up having a little sympathy for him, although not as much as for the other three members of the love-square that forms the spine of the drama. This does not however mean that we are totally sympathetic to Halka. We know that she is totally nuts (and possibly mentally handicapped to some extent) from the very beginning, and her rejection of Jontek’s love, her plan A of burning down the church, and then her suicide by drowning proves this for the audience. Jontek is perhaps too loving or is he(?), yet when in opera has this been as sign of stupidity unless it gets you killed which for Jontek it does not? Zofia is bizarrely the most sympathetic but at the same time the most two dimensional which is odd since we know more about her origins than anyone else (and her father is the only parent at the wedding and he is more three dimensional than she is). In spite of its horrible storyline there is so much here, the music, the examination and critique of a class system, a devastating love story that ends up ruining the lives of literally everyone involved including people like Halka’s dead baby who we never even meet because he is dead before we find out he was born? What will happen to the survivors? Will Zofia’s marriage to Janusz be quickly and quietly annulled by the Pope? After all it is unconsummated. What will happen to Jontek? Will he kill Janusz or might Stolnik ruin him economically for trying to hood-wink his daughter into a con marriage? Will Janusz have Jontek physically tortured, after all he is one of his serfs. Oh well now I am just raving and it is 1 am! If I had to choose just one of the numbers from the opera as the best it would be Jontek’s aria from the fourth act (which incidentally was an addition that was not in the original version). Halka is still an A, regardless of the insanity of its storyline.

One response to “Stanislaw Moniuszko: Halka (1858)”

  1. What a fantastic opera! I would NEVER have listened to this if it were not for your website…thank you!! Not a dull moment in these highly enjoyable 2 hours, and I really liked the Mazurka at the end of Act 1 (I guess you mean it’s UN-forgettable!). Looking forward to Straszny Dwór!!


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