Opera in 4 (2) acts

LIBRETTO: Włodzimierz Wolski
WORLD PREMIERE: Warsaw, Teatr Wielki, 1 January 1858
(original version: Vilnius, 1 January 1848)

Halka: Paulina Rivoli, soprano
Janusz: Adam Ziółkowski, baritone
Jontek: Julian Dobrski, tenor
Zofia: Kornelia Quattrini, mezzo-soprano
Stolnik: Wilhelm Troszel, bass
Dziemba: Jan Stysiński, bass
Dudarz (Bagpiper): Napoleon Lucas, baritone
Góral (Highlander): Aleksander Mystkowski, tenor
Dwaj Szlachcice (Two Noblemen): tenor and bass

Act 1. Stolnik is celebrating his daughter Zofia’s engagement to wealthy Janusz (polonaise: Niech nam żyje para młoda). While the father blesses the young couple (tercet: Pobłogosław, ojcze, panie), a female voice can be heard singing pitifully from afar (Jako od wichru krzew połamany), which visibly upsets Janusz. He is the only one to have recognised the girl as Halka. But who is Halka? Eager to make everyone happy on her big day, Zofia wants to invite Halka to join in the celebrations. That is when Janusz reveals his dark secret: one day, bored with the monotony of rural life, he coupled with one of his peasant maids (Skąd tu przybyła – Czemuż mnie w chwilach), who has felt fiery passion for him ever since. Enter Halka singing a sad song. Seeing Janusz, she throws herself at him, which instantly calms her and makes her happy (duet: Mnie Jontek mówił). Unable to confess the truth, Janusz agrees to meet her outside of the town, by a crucifix on the banks of the Vistula river. Right after he manages to persuade the wretched girl to leave, Stolnik and his guests appear. Stolnik officially thanks everybody for coming (O, mościwi mi panowie) and orders the musicians play a lively mazurka.

Act 2. Halka wanders around the gardens surrounding Stolnik’s castle. Although she is looking for her friend, Jontek, who is hopelessly in love with her, she is still thinking about Janusz (O jakże bym klęczeć już chciała – Gdyby rannym słonkiem) and believes that Jontek is overly distrustful of the young master. Jontek is under no illusions (I ty mu wierzysz?). At that moment the joyful buzz of the engagement party finally reaches Halka’s ears. Devastated, she rushes towards the castle door, shouting that Janusz is the father of her child. Jontek tries to lead her out of the gate, yet the guests have already gathered up around her. Greatly discomfited Janusz begs Jontek to free him of Halka, promising a handsome award. Fortunately, he manages to convince Stolnik and Zofia that Halka has lost her senses as evidenced by her blank stare. Dziemba, Stolnik’s right hand man, unceremoniously shows Halka and Jontek out.

Act 3. In a highland village owned by Janusz the country folk gossip about their master’s amorous liaison after vespers (chorus: Po nieszporach, przy niedzieli), then start dancing (Tańce góralskie). Enter Jontek, leading Halka who is engulfed by despair (Wracam z miasta od panicza). He gives flabbergasted villagers an account of what he has just witnessed (Przyszliśmy właśnie w zaręczyn chwilę), while half-conscious Halka keeps lamenting her lot. Act 4. Jontek keeps a guard in front of a small church in the mountains where Zofia and Janusz are to marry, fretting about Halka’s imminent arrival (Nieszczęsna Halka gwałtem tu idzie). He confines in a bagpiper standing in front of the church (Szumią jodły). The highlanders have not managed to stop the wretched girl and so she sits down by the church’s entrance, waiting for the ominous wedding party. Dziemba orders the villagers to give cheerfully greet the newlyweds (chorus: Powitajmy ich wesoło). Zofia and Stolnik recognise Halka as the girls who disrupted the engagement party (Biednaż ja, biedna dziewczyna), yet , fortunately for Janusz, they do not grow suspicious. Jontek tries to rouse Halka from stupor (duet: Więc widziałaś?), yet she has had enough. Hearing a joint payer from the church (Ojcze z niebios), she jumps on her feet certain that her baby is dying (Ha, dzieciątko me umiera – O, mój maleńki). In a state of fury, she wants to set the church on fire, yet comes to her senses: she cannot kill the one she loves. She forgives Janusz, runs towards the river and jumps into its deep waters, escaping Jontek by inches. Dziemba will make sure that this unfortunate incident does not disrupt the joyful atmosphere.

Following the publication of Moniuszko’s Songbook for Home Use No. 1 and 2 (1843, 1845) in Vilnius, the composer went to Warsaw, where he met a young poet and a ‘radical’ Włodzimierz Wolski. The verse-maker had just finished writing a poem titled Halszka based on Kazimierz Władysław Wójcicki’s novella Góralka (Highland Girl) drawing on a folk story and published in a collection titled Stare gawędy i obrazy (1840). Naturally, the poem had been banned by censors, yet Wolski suggested that it be reworked into a libretto. Discussions on the topic, which also involved critic Józef Sikorski and ethnographer Oskar Kolberg, gave fruit in the form of a two-act opera today known as Halka the Vilnius version. Sikorski spared no time in presenting the score to those in charge of the Warsaw Opera (headed at the time by Tomasz Nidecki), who first accepted, but then rejected it. Consequently, the work was given its debut at the Moniuszko’s in-laws’ house in Vilnius, in a concert version. A fully staged production premiered only six years later, on 16 February 1854, again in Vilnius. The reactions were rather unfavourable. The piece was seen as immoral and anti-patriotic. Yet the effort was not wasted as Moniuszko got a chance to test the strengths and weaknesses of his first stage work. Now, having completed two operettas, Cyganie (Vilnius, 1852; renamed Jawnuta, Warsaw, 1860) and Bettly (Vilnius, 1852, with a libretto based on Scribe’a Le Chalet, also used by Aubera, 1834, and Donizettiego, 1836), he felt significantly more confident. What is more, in the meantime, he visited Saint Petersburg twice, where he discussed Halka with Alexander Dargomyzhsky. The composer was enthusiastic about the piece and likely drew inspiration from it when writing his Rusalka (1856). In 1856 Moniuszko sat down to the score again, adding a duet of Jontek and Janusz, and Tańce góralskie (Highland dances). Encouraged by positive feedback from the Teatr Wielki, Warsaw, led from 1853 by Jan Quattrini, Moniusko continued to polish the opera working in association with Wolski and under a supportive yet critical supervision of his friends, penning the opera’s most popular fragments at the time: Stolnik’s aria and Mazurka, Halka’s grand aria Gdyby rannym słonkiem and Jontek’s aria from Act 4 Szumią jodły. what is more, Jontek’s part was transposed to tenor. The new version of the work was divided into four acts. Its premiere on 1 January 1858 was a triumph: a huge artistic achievement and a patriotic event. The date is considered the birthday of Polish opera. Performed 150 times during the composer’s lifetime, the work saw over 500 performances before the end of the century. (On 9 December 1900, the 500th show was conducted by Emil Młynarski and starred Salomea Kruszelnicka in the afternoon and Janina Korolewiczówna in the evening as Halka alongside Stanisław Sienkiewicz as Jontek, Gabriel Górski as Janusz, Maria Bogucka and Maria Skulska as Zofia, Józef Chodakowski (covering for Adam Didur) as Stolnik and Henryk Kawalski as Dziemba. In 1935 the performance count reached a thousand. On 17 March 1867 the opera premiered in Lviv in an abridged version, not for censorship reasons but because the performers were not professional opera singers. The production ran for ca. 40 performances. Soon after the opera was given a debut in Prague (1868, conductor: Smetana), Moscow (1869), St. Petersburgu(1870, conductor: Cui), Kiev (1874), Riga (1888), Poznań (1898, in German), New York (1903), Milan (Teatro Lirico 1905, amateur performance, Italian translation by baritone Achille Bonoldi). In 1926 Halka premiered in Vienna (Volksoper; followed by another production in 1965 directed by Aleksander Bardini and conducted by Jan Krenz), in 1935 debuted in Germany (Hamburg, conductor: Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt, Hans Hotter as Janusz) and Switzerland (Zurich). The 1936 Berlin production starred Tiana Lemnitz and Marcel Wittrisch. Highly praised by many and criticised by others, the famous Leon Schiller staging (first shown Berlin 1953, later revived in Warsaw) became a point of reference for future productions. The opera has never been really taken off in Poland: it is staged to mark special occasions (e.g. the post-war reopening of the Teatr Wielki, Warsaw on 21 November 1965) and, fortunately, also for its merits… It is hardly ever shown outside of Poland, although one needs to mention the efforts undertaken by Maria Fołtyn, one of the most prominent post-war Halkas, to promote the work abroad. Nothings says more about the opera’s stature in the Polish repertoire than the occasional stagings of its Vilnius version (Vilnius 1926, Kraków 1931, Warsaw 1986 as well as Oberhausen 1990).

(Piotr Kamiński, Tysiąc i jedna opera, Kraków 2008)