Stanislaw Moniuszko: Straszny Dwor (1865)

Opera in four acts. Running Time: 2 hours 44 minutes.

290px-straszny_dwc3b3r

A comedy, I need a comedy! And not Meistersinger tricking us into thinking that anything in which no one dies is a comedy: I mean something really funny and light-hearted! The photo is of a 1966 production at the Teatr Wielki in Warsaw where the opera was first performed.

SETTING: Poland, mid-18th century. Two brothers, Stefan (tenor) and Zbigniew (bass) vow never to marry so as to always be free to fight in the military for their beloved Polska. Gradually they change their minds while visiting an old family friend whose house is supposedly haunted, and they meet his two daughters Hanna (soprano) and Jadwiga (mezzo-soprano) even though their scheming aunt Czesnikowa (contralto) wants them to marry different girls, so she teams up with Hanna’s suitor, the lawyer Damazy (tenor), to discredit the brothers are cowards so the girls’ father Miecznik will discount their suits.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K6LX-r4lzkg&t=1284s

LOOK OUT FOR:

ACT 1: (42 minutes)

0: The overture (or rather prelude as there is no definitely conclusion?) * starts off starchy going into a boxy march. Early on it uses a woodwind technique that will be more effectively fleshed out in Lalo’s overture to Le roi d’Ys. 

Scene 1: The barracks, New Year’s Eve.

7, 10: Around five minutes in the curtain rises and the soldiers sing a drinking chorus, the first outing isn’t that interesting but the second is ** rather sparkles. Brothers Stefan (tenor) and Zbigniew (baritone). Stefan’s material in particular resembles an Offenbach (there are however traces of Meyerbeer and Wagner here as well) ensemble number and he seems to dominate the entire scene as a type of mascot from a melodic stand point *. This is all cute, but a little boxy. They take vows to remain bachelor’s so they can always be free to fight in wars and not have wives and children to think about and it is at this point that a leitmotif for this appears (it will return).

Scene 2: A room in Stefan and Zbigniew’s house.

16: After an aggressive interlude from the orchestra we are bombarded by females buzzing around the house making things ready for the arrival of Stefan and Zbigniew *.

19: This is followed by a rather Rossinian-sounding clarinet interlude *.

20: A trio ** for the brothers and their aunt’s servant Maciej starts out slightly prayerful, then becomes very jovial, prayerful, and then jovial again followed by an agitated passage in which aunt Czesnikowa is announced.

26: Another trio **, this time for the brothers and aunt Czesnikowa (the latter having a very uncharacteristic coloratura passage). As aunty goes through a lot of background things get a little dull, but it pops back into gear soon.

35: The act finale *, in which the brothers decide to visit old Miecznik at his manor Kalinow and Czesnikowa tries to dissuade them by going into a long passage (with choral and brass accompaniment!) about how his manor is haunted. The brothers don’t bite, laugh off the story, and Stefan in particularly musically takes over. I’m personally underwhelmed by the end of the act.

ACT 2: A room in Kalinow set up for New Year’s Eve festivities. (43 minutes)

0: A prelude which can not make up its mind if it is a waltz is followed by a mild female chorus. The only interesting feature of this is a downward chromatic scale * that occurs one in the prelude and then again in the chorus. It changes to a more Mozartean tone as Staruszka the housekeeper enters. Hannah and Jadwiga come on eventually as well and the girls finish to an agreeable mini-climax before scurrying away.

6: Jadwiga’s Dumka * is a good but rather smokey number, which I suppose makes a great deal of sense.

10: A perky duet for Damazy and Hanna *.

15: Now something totally different *** a glorious quartet with chorus, much of it dominated by the two sisters and accompanied by the chorus as the girls tell their fortunes (apparently a Szlachta custom involving melted wax on the eve of the New Year). It eventually descends into a mazurka as their father and Damazy pop in. The sisters go back into their glorious melody before the four make a good hash of it at the finish.

23: Miecznik’s aria ** appears to be set to a polonaise, which makes a lot of sense because he declares that what he is looking for in potential sons-in-law are men who are both brave and patriotic (although how either trait will provide his daughters with comparable mates remains to be seen). Apparently this means

30: Czesnikowa arrives and tries to portray her nephews as cowards in an attempt to have them turned away by Miecznik. The finale is in two parts and starts off with a male chorus which is greeted by Miecznik **. They have a problem, a boar has been killed and one of their number Skoluba, claims to have killed it. The problem is that two other strangers also claim to have slain the animal.

33: As we enter the second part of the finale the clarinet theme reappears from earlier and then we get a lush string accompaniment as Miecznik continues **.

36: A lovely ensemble ***, much of it a cappella at first with only the slightest string accompaniment, flowers into this remarkably heroic number as the brothers arrive. It turns out that they are the two strangers and so Czesnikowa and Damazy team up with Skoluba to defame the brothers. The act ends on a much more satisfactory note than the first.

ACT 3: The visitors’ bedroom, two prominent portraits and a grandfather clock. (41 minutes)

4: After an agitated recitative, Skoluba freaks Maciej out as he prepares things for his masters and warns him about two portraits and the clock which are supposed to be enchanted, apparently this is set to waltz time *.

11, 15: Maciej’s fear is so bad that Zbigniew has to walk him to his own room next-door, leaving Stefan alone to embark on one of the most remarkable tenor arias ever ***. This is probably the tenor equivalent of Tatiana’s Letter Scene. The clock chimes mysteriously and Stefan thinks of his mother *** to an etherial orchestral bell, and he finishes well with an effective petition to his dead mum.

21: Zbigniew returns to the most ardent orchestral accompaniment and tells Stefan that he is in love with Jadwiga in a most ardent scena **.

22: The Stefan-Zbigniew duet *** includes such highlights as a lovely arioso for Zbigniew and the return of Stefan’s Offenbach tune from the act 1 opening choral sequences in which he reminds his brother of their vow never to marry. Then they flip, Stefan goes lyrical and it is Zbigniew that brings back to the Offenbach tune.

30: A quartet ** develops out of the revelations by the two men of their love for the Miecznik daughters. Hanna goes into some coloratura towards the end and the girls go off before the boys investigate and find Damazy in the clock.

35: Damazy tries to explain himself  to the brothers, telling them that the house is haunted because its construction was financed by ill-gotten funds. Maciej comes on, still terrified and the brothers decide to not sleep under the roof of the house given its origins. The highlight of the act finale is, again, Stefan’s glorious tenor vocal line *.

ACT 4: New Year’s Day, a carnival train. (37 minutes)

2: After a good prelude, an aria for Hanna *. It is tuneful, but a very standard item as she bel cantos away her despair over the departure of the knights and their vow of celibacy.

10: After a confrontation between Damazy and Stefan over Hanna, the Hanna-Stefan duet **.

19: A hauntingly beautiful passage ** as the boys, Maciej and Miecznik meet.

20: The seventeen-minute-long finale *** starts off with a furious choral Krakowiac followed by a Mazurka.

28: Miecznik straightens out the whole “haunted manor” issue **. His great-grandfather had nine daughters, who dominated the regional marriage industry to the point that everyone else’s daughter ended up an old maid. The chorus does a chromatic bit.

36: The final part of the finale * ends with one last go at the vow leitmotif, first by Hanna and Jadwiga as they mock Czesnikowa, and then taken up by the chorus and company. Curtain.

COMMENTS:

Although I will admit that I prefer Moniuszko’s earlier opera, Straszny Dwor is a musically gifted work and a technical advancement on Halka. But, and it is a glaring one, Straszny Dwor is also very much a product of mid-19th century Polish nationalism and its plot is a blantantly idealistic and artificially romantic view of the Rzeczpospolita, which was one of the most repressive and yet surprisingly ineffectual regimes in human history, equivalent today with Angola only that Angola has a more systematic penal system. Although I will not make apologizes for the Russian regime which replaced it, saying that Poland-Lithuania prior to Russian rule was just peachy is frankly fictive at best and down right criminal at worst. Whereas Halka actually attacks the corrupt Szlachta system, Straszny Dwor waxes nostalgia about it. Thankfully there are no references to Poland as “the Christ of Europe” or otherwise my anti-messianic gag reflect would start working. That said, this work should be taken as a light-hearted, romantic, almost operetta-style piece, similarly to Offenbach or Wagner’s Das Liebersverbot, and if this is done then it is fine.

The plot is a little simplistic, and slow, and after all the intimate indoor scenes the setting of act four seems a bit odd. The two romantic relationships are really not directly developed well (although they are indirectly, yet the four characters hardly interact except as sibling pairs) and only Hanna and Stefan get a love duet, and then in act four! Also the idea that the Kalinow is haunted never really consummates and the explanation for the rumour is too cheeky. Also, if the house is suspected to be haunted, nothing in Hanna or Jadwiga’s personalities demonstrates interest in the supposed haunting.

There are times when Moniuszko tries too hard to be tuneful, such as Stefan’s act one song and some of the choruses, (it also takes an hour for the opera to really bloom, although when it does, it REALLY does), the finales to acts 1 and 3 are a bit underwhelming, and yet at the same time I can’t help but observe how incredibly flattering to the tenor voice the role of Stefan is. Wiesław Ochman, who I know from several recordings I’ve reviewed here before as well as playing Narraboth against Teresa Stratas’ Salome in the 1975 telemovie, delivers the role seemingly effortlessly.  Although I will admit that I really don’t love this opera, it is either a solid alpha or an alpha minus.

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12 thoughts on “Stanislaw Moniuszko: Straszny Dwor (1865)

      1. What, you are MeyerbeerSmith?! Doesn’t surprise me, but I’ve been on your channel for years and never knew!

        So you actually produce the videos you include on your blog then. That is so cool! Wow, I must seem like one of those birds that live on hippos then!

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      2. Ah, mon ami! You saw, but you did not observe! Always, one should use the little grey cells. Who else had a fondness for Meyerbeer, Halévy, Berlioz, and Straszny dwór? 😉

        We are *both* birds, feeding off the hippopotami that are the record producers.

        I hope, like the oxpecker bird, our relationship with the companies is somehow symbiotic – we get people interested in the music!

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  1. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth could be either hellish or amazing depending on your socio-economic class. It did have freedom of religion (for Jews and non-Roman Catholics it was a safe haven in an era of religious wars and sheer intolerance, anyone who left Catholicism though was beheaded) and homosexuality was never criminalized because they apparently just didn’t bother with passing a law against it for some reason, but even today Poland has one of the largest underclasses of any state in Europe, around one quarter to one third of the population living in extreme poverty. It is a hyper-Capitalist and oligarchical state and apparently always has been. The recent rise of Fascism in Poland is not an historical one-off, it has a strong past. I suppose that is what happens when you are neither socialist nor totalitarian and possess as loose and ineffective a legislative body as the Sejm (the historic liberum veto). If you were Szlachta (one of the 10% of the population which was ennobled, my step-mother is partially descended from a Szlachta line from Pomerania) then the plot of this opera is probably a closer reflection of life in pre-partion Poland, although even a certain percentage of Szlachta lived in poverty, they just retained voting rights. But that would be like looking at France before the revolution from the perspective of Versailles only. Even light-hearted works like Chabrier’s Le roi malgre lui do not try to hide the existence of slavery in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (Minka, for instance), so my principle objection was to the patriotic whitewashed fantasy of Straszny Dwor’s depiction of 18th century Poland. However, it is possible to ignore this, to look at Miecznik’s patriotism as quaint, and simply take the work as a romantic comic opera that just happens to be set in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

    I actually had mixed feelings about the first outing of “Ten zegar stary”, the strident snare drum (although I get the military context) was rather reprehensible to me, hence the lower star ratings and my comment on it being boxy. Stefan in this scene seems to be like a tenor Preziosilla, which I will admit to finding interesting. I had difficulties with the first act and it was the only one that I had to re-listen to a second time because I rated it even lower initially. It is possible that the recording itself more than the scoring is to blame for my impression. Going into the second act I thought I was getting more of the same until 15 minutes in when things really changed. From that point I started to understand why you think of this work so highly. I still find Halka to be overall a more consistently melodious work, and I care more about the characters in the earlier opera, but there are parts of Straszny Dwor which definitely exceed Halka in technique and Moniuszko’s use of chromaticism here did not escape my detection. I did, however, really like the role of Stefan, it just seems more fun than the others.

    Overall if this is one of your top ten, it is probably in my top 100.

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  2. “Ten zegar stary” is the bass aria: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mUYhIUlHX70

    Try Kaspszyk’s 2001 recording, or highlights from Figas’ 1994 recording.

    Do you find Verdi’s bombastic, bloodthirsty Risorgimento operas objectionable? Straszny dwór was written under similar circumstances, when the country was occupied by a foreign power.

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  3. First, I will address the fact that I misidentified Skoluby’s aria at the start of act 3 as Stefan’s act one opener. Yes, I did, thanks for calling me out on this. I really didn’t get this aria, I wavered on giving it two stars because the synopsis made a point of mentioning it but I found it relatively sedate in spite of the waltz meter. Bass arias tend to end up with low ratings on my blog because I usually don’t “get” them. It is generally impossible to provide too much orchestral accompaniment to them because the voice will be drowned out (Le veau d’or aside although it has choral backing) and basses rarely get to carry a melody (except maybe in Verdi?). There are exceptions of course, but that is my general takeaway. If it will make you happy since you mentioned just this one aria, I might change it as I had been originally considering two stars.

    Hahaha! I laugh although this is a very good point and I was considering this while I was reviewing I vespri Siciliani for my own amusement this past weekend. You’re thinking of the likes of I Lombardi, La battaglia di Legnano, Attila. There are some differences, but I will concede that these are among Verdi’s worst. Straszny Dwor is a comedy, and as such it tries to create a happy idealization. Verdi’s nationalist operas are all dramas, grotesquely violent at times, brutish, and zero attempt is made at hiding what they are really about (weird religiosity of Lombardi aside). They are also, mostly, not idealized but rather disgusting and this is probably why he ended up dropping the genre completely after writing Siciliane for Paris. There are some constructive differences: in Nabucco Verdi uses the Ancient Hebrews to further an Italian ideological plan so the messaging can be totally diverted to being pro-Jewish (a good thing, ability to forward messaging to another group), but this is also the better of these operas. Lombardi I’ve already reviewed as being rather dreadful (although even it has one moment of anti-Crusader messaging), Battaglia di Leganano has some wonderful music due to Verdi’s saturation of French influences, but I’ll admit that the libretto is a hodgepodge of idiocy and Arrigo’s death scene is rather ridiculous if pretty. Attila has a uniquely dark tone which I like but I still find Enzo weird and his constant bleating “rendra Italia a me” is annoying. The libretto is also terrible, but mostly because it went through far too many changes and too many hands. Les vepres Siciliane is my least favourite by far of all of Verdi’s post-Luisa Miller operas. It has a few good tunes, but otherwise it is a sprawling mess of idiocy and bloodthirsty nationalism (and the rape scene is extremely disturbing rather than effectively frightening). The libretto is possibly Scribe’s worst (La nonne sanglante might even be better!) and Verdi seems to have lost his sense of drama by act 2 and never regains it. I utterly hate Giovanna d’Arco, which is also nationalist although focused on France.

    Overall Straszny Dwor is a better opera than all of these (except Nabucco which is about equal with it in my opinion), by a long shot. What I object to is its idealized happy story considering it comes from the same man who gave us the oppression of the masses tale that is Halka, seduced and impregnanted by a wretched nobleman who then marries another woman. That was a gritty tale that exposes class unrest (the way the peasants respond to the wedding party upon their arrival is magnificent), this is “look how wonderful Poland was(n’t) 100 years ago (for rich people)”.

    One other comment is how militarism is portrayed. Verdi’s armies are brutalistic, coarse, and crude, Moniuszko’s here is stepping out of an Offenbach operetta.

    However, that doesn’t take away from my other objections to the plot of Straszny Dwor: why does almost all of the romantic plot formation take place between acts? There is zero development on the Zbigniew/Jadwiga relationship and barely any on the Stefan/Hanna relationship. I just find this so odd. The “haunting” device is rather silly even for a comic opera and the girls seem to be oblivious to it. Also, how are they able to hide behind portraits without the boys figuring out the truth? After all they find Damazy in the grandfather clock?

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    1. It is possible though that I took poetic license equating the PLC with present day Angola. My point is that the upper class exploits and abuses the working and under classes and Halka does a far better job of depicting historical conditions, whereas Straszny Dwor is a gross idealization even if allowances are made for the fact that it is a lite comic opera. Both are romantic works, but Halka has far more credibility to me and I find it more consistently melodic than Straszny Dwor. So even if Poland thinks of the comic opera as Moniuszko’s greatest masterpiece, I still love and cherish Halka more.

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