Opera in a prologue and three acts. Running Time: 2 hours 9 minutes.
The things I do for you people. I really should get paid to do some of these reviews!
Yet another Euro-trash production! This was the sixth and last opera Moniuszko wrote, and he thought it would be his greatest success. That obviously did not transpire, as until July, 2019 I had the pleasure, nay privilege, of not even know that this thing existed, much less had a recording release and a new production at Poznan. It is based on the same scenario that had been used by Donizetti forty years earlier in Il Paria. The production is the epitome of Euro Reggie-trash, only given a West Slavic rendering, complete with a guy cleaning a toilet, machine guns, and various other Warsaw Pact era martial accessories.
SETTING: Benares, India. Neala (soprano) is to become a priestess but is in love with the warrior Idamor (tenor) who storms the temple of her father the Brahmin High Priest Akebar (bass) who eventually gives in to letting the two marry. However, an old Untouchable named Dzares (baritone) reveals that Idamor is his son, and thus also an Untouchable, prompting the High Priest and his followers to kill Idamor. Neala, in desolation of her father executing the man she loved, flees with Dzares, rejecting her former life forever.
LOOK OUT FOR:
PROLOGUE: A sacred grove. (16 minutes)
0, 6, 14: The prelude * is painfully colourless if structurally well-crafted. After a rather standard opening rouser which sounds like Tchaikovsky, it continues on for four minutes of mostly placid string music (although it does end on some chromatic elements) of the sort that is used to accompany silent films at revival festivals until we go directly into the action, which consists initially of a recitative between Idamor and his second Ratef (both are tenors) as they plot the siege of the temple the following day. They are interrupted by a furious chorus from the warriors under their command as they chase on an old Untouchable man who has desecrated the grove with his presence *. What follows is a recitative straight out of Wagner (it screams Lohengrin) yet laced with Verdi. The old man is saved by Idamor and the men disperse. Idamor is left to ponder his own secret origin as an Untouchable in an aria which takes a while to warm up but when it does it doesn’t disappoint with its one sturdy tune *.
ACT 1: Another sacred grove at a temple in Benares. (43 minutes)
0: And now, the overture ** that goes on for a VERY long time (in Poland it is actually considered to be the best orchestral piece Moniuszko ever wrote, if this is to be believed).
10, 16: With all this out of the way, we can get to some plot forwarding as Neala and a troop of Polish nuns come to a spring to draw water in a pleasant enough chorus *. Left alone finally, Neala contemplates how she is conflicted between her love for Idamor and her duty to become a priestess as prescribed by her father. The nuns are heard dancing and singing to a tam-tam drum in an attempt at scenic depiction *.
19: Idamor arrives and surprises Neala * in a Verdi-parody fury-waltz duet which confirms the suspicion one has that this is a Polish aping of Italian opera.
25, 32, 35: A quaint intermezzo is followed up by the arrival of the Brahmin priests and Akebar *, using cymbals and drums to invoke some semblance of Indian culture, however remote. Akebar makes his addresses okay enough to choral support. Neala tells daddy she doesn’t want to be a priestess after all, which prompts an agreeable aria of disappointment from him * and eventually a stately ensemble * as they all pray that Neala will be revealed a of marriage partner. Mystic chanting ensues before Idamor arrives and Akebar concedes that the hero who has rescued them from many enemies will marry Neala. The lovers are content with this resolution and the act ends.
ACT 2: (37 minutes)
Scene 1: Another random place (?).
The act opens with some string wood leading to a recitative for Neala and Idamor in which he reveals his Untouchable origin to her and she rather readily accepts this news (although at least there is some angst at the initially revelation). The orchestra meanders about for the longest time, I just can’t justify this with a star-rating because I am bored out of my mind at this point. The music isn’t utterly horrible, but it also has absolutely no originality!
Scene 2: A temple.
9: A quiet prelude introduces yet another tranquil chorus of nuns *, Neala comes on bemoaning the fate of her beloved Idamor (more tam-tams).
15: More bemoaning of fate by Neala **, this time to harp accompaniment and without the chorus.
18: Ratef comes on and tells Neala that an old man wishes to see Idamor, she says that she will greet this old man *.
20, 26: This old man is Dzeres and he sings his sad song *. Neala encounters him and it is quickly discovered that he is the father of Idamor in an impassioned ensemble *.
29: Idamor arrives and Dzeres tells him to return with him to their people *. In the last two minutes it breaks into a tune, at least, even if only an agreeable one.
ACT 3: The shore of the Ganges, wedding in progress. (34 minutes)
0: At least this entr’acte will wake you up, momentarily that is, it quickly turns into a wedding march of sorts with choral participation **.
6: Akebar delivers a prayer for the protection of the couple *.
8: And now, as if things couldn’t get worse, we have a six minute long ballet which somewhat resembles Ma Vlast.
14: Dzeres shows up and spills the beans that he is an Untouchable *, and thus requires death to expunge himself of the crime of existing while Dalit.
19: Akebar is about to oblige the old man when Idamor begs for his life *, offering to trade his own life for the old man declaring himself to also be an Untouchable (a gong sounds here). Akebar stabs Idamor to death.
25: The finale *, Neala comes on decked out in her bridal gown and screams upon seeing the lifeless corpse of her betrothed. She embarks upon a closing cavatina in which she sides with Dzeres against her father and leaves. In the last two minutes things improve somewhat with more angst from the orchestra and a series of delicate harp accompanied lines for Neala.
Taken at face value, this is a good opera. The orchestration is effective enough and there are agreeable enough tunes. Were it the work of an Italian amateur in the second half of the nineteenth century it would actually be very good. But as the final completed operatic work of the Father of Polish opera (which took him a decade to write), it is a disturbingly pale and pallid ghost of earlier work. Moniuszko had written Halka twenty years earlier and Straszny Dwór four years before, and it appears that in the intervening period his capacities as a composer had eroded considerably and were more than bordering on parody. The score is bloodless, and yet vampiric at the same time, without a single bar of original music which could not have been written by literally anyone else during the same time period. Frankly, I could have written this score, that is how unsophisticated it is! Only the language gives away the fact that the opera is Polish, nothing in the music would indicate this in the slightest, nor really the Indian setting either. Of the characters, only Neala is fully fleshed out to any extent, the men simply do not have enough stage time to come off as more than two-dimensional. The pacing is excruciatingly slow, with the four main characters not being all introduced until seventy-eight minutes into the opera. The producers also give away that they knew this by creating this performance, which only amplifies the starchy aping of Italian opera. The audience applause is an insult. I actually dislike the production more so than the opera itself. The score is okay (although hardly more than that), but this production is a Euthanization of theatrical stage craft. Where is the Moniuszko of Halka? Gad, it can’t be anything but a gamma!