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CD Button Rot, Kubas-Kruk, Wieczorek, Passini; Bręk, Butryn, Kujawa, Makal, Bonaszewski, Janyst, Wasilkowski; Wrocław Baroque Orch., Kosendiak. Texts and translations. Accord 243

Recordings Widma Cover 1118
Critics Choice Button 1015

STANISŁAW MONIUSZKO'S  Widma (Phantoms) is a curious, fascinating work that blends Slavic folk legend, folk ritual and folk music with cantata, oratorio and spoken drama, creating a singular musical and dramatic experience. This world-premiere recording of the original version, with Andrzej Kosendiak conducting the Wrocław Baroque Orchestra and NFM Choir, provides an impeccably produced and performed hearing of a rarely heard Moniuszko work, complete with a booklet containing detailed essays about the work’s genesis and performance history, as well as a Polish–English libretto. 

Considered to be the father of Polish opera and one of the country’s greatest composers, Moniuszko often drew inspiration from Polish literature and folklore with patriotic undertones. His best-known work outside of Poland is Halka, a tragic love story set against the backdrop of tensions between the nobility and the peasant class, based on a poem by the radical Polish poet Włodzimierz Wolski. For Widma, Moniuszko set Part II of Poland’s national poet Adam Mickiewicz’s poem Dziadów, in which Polish peasants gather to honor the dead with food and drink in the eponymous pagan folk ceremony, similar to the Mexican Día de Muertos. 

Inspired by the nineteenth-century French cantatas of Félicien David, Moniuszko adapted Dziadów into a quasi-secular cantata. Lyrical scenes alternate with large pieces of spoken text, or melodramas,some of which are underscored or punctuated by the orchestra for dramatic effect. The result is not so much a cantata in the manner of Monteverdi or Berlioz as a play with music. Dramatic moments that leap off the page as the ideal opportunity for a grand dramatic aria are recited as monologues. These highly charged moments could have made for some electric musical passages. Yet it’s the back-and-forth between dramatic declamation and folk melodies, choruses and dances that gives Widma its flavor, placing it somewhere between ritual, pageant and opera. The cantata’s strength is not just Moniuszko’s melodic score but his instinct for theater and storytelling. 

The central role is the gus´larz, the master of ceremonies, sung by the smooth-toned baritone Jarosław Bręk and acted by Paweł Janyst, who conjures the souls of those languishing in purgatory to see if the living can speed their way to heaven. The cantata is divided into three sections named for the souls that come forth to seek salvation—those of a heartless landowner, two young children and a cold-hearted shepherdess. Widma’s juxtaposition of musical and spoken drama is at its most powerful in the second section, with the landowner, Widmo, or the ghost, being pursued by a chorus of birds-of-prey, the souls of serfs he mistreated. The tempestuous choral music and Widmo’s fearful aria build to the monologue devastatingly spoken by Anna Wieczorek, as the Owl, the soul of a mother whom the landowner let die in the street with her child on Christmas Eve. The final section, named for Zosia the Shepherdess, is more pastoral in tone, with Zosia’s waltz-like aria, sung with a limpid and spirited tone, perfectly mimicking the flippant way she treated her lovers. Widma concludes with the stroke of midnight, the end of Dziadów, and the final iteration of the peasants’ chorale, signaling that the annual ritual has been completed. —Steven Jude Tietjen

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