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