OPERA NEWS - The Haunted Manor
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In Review > International

The Haunted Manor

WARSAW
Polish National Opera
11/4/18

In Review Haunted Manor hdl 219
Stairway to paradise: The Haunted Manor in Warsaw
© Krzysztof Bielinski

STANISŁAW MONIUSZKO'S Straszny Dwór (The Haunted Manor) is one of those tantalizing operas that enjoy formidable popularity in their own country (in this case Poland) but have never made their way over the border to the international repertoire, despite the efforts of earnest champions. Moniuszko’s score, first performed in 1865, certainly deserves a wider hearing. It harks back to the days of Romantic folk nationalism in the Freischütz vein, with arias strongly influenced by bel canto and harmonies indicating that Moniuszko had spent much time listening to Verdi. There are genuinely thrilling moments in the score, but the plot is a silly concoction involving two soldiers, Stefan and Zbigniew, returning home from the war. The men are tricked into marrying Hanna and Jadwiga, two young ladies who pretend to be figures in a picture hanging in the “haunted” manor of their father. All ends happily. The weighty musical values of the opera are perilously endangered by the triviality of the farce.

David Pountney’s exhilarating production of The Haunted Manor, first staged at the Opera Narodowa in November 2015, attracted a full, enthusiastic house to its revival this season (seen Nov. 4). Pountney emphasizes the colorful nationalistic elements of the action over the farcical antics of the plot: the staging includes not only multiple choruses of soldiers, huntsmen and women of the village and a rapturously received set of energetic dances but a wonderful directorial coup in which the action’s New Year festivities are presented in the form of tableaux vivants of paintings of tales from Polish folklore. Leslie Travers’s ingenious sets, which are both alluringly romantic and crisply modernistic, gave the action a panoramic quality; Marie-Jeanne Lecca’s costumes presented a veritable cross-section of the ranks and classes of an entire nation.

The music-making was not always as imaginative or as attentive to detail and dynamics as the staging; at times one had the sense that this material was so familiar to some of the performers in the cast that they had lost interest in it. Certainly Grzegorz Nowak’s conducting lacked the bite and commitment that he brought to last year’s production of Eros and Psyche here. Stanisław Kuflyuk sang with most authority as Miecznik, the owner of the haunted manor. The music for Hanna and Stefan offered formidable challenges to soprano Ewa Majcherczyk and tenor Paweł Skałuba. Majcherczyk negotiated the coloratura passages of her Act III aria with difficulty and uncertain pitch. Skałuba started off the night with pinched tones in his high register, though his voice took on an impressive ring in his great Act II aria. Abetted by mezzo-soprano Anna Bernacka as Jadwiga and bass-baritone Artur Janda as Zbigniew, Majcherczyk and Skałuba made magic of the quartet when Hanna and Jadwiga emerge from the pictures. Moments such as this made one eager to hear more of Moniuszko’s music. 

The Haunted Manor is an ensemble piece, which memorably generates a strong sense of community onstage. The opera was permitted only three performances after its premiere in 1865 before the Russian authorities banned it on the grounds that it was politically subversive. The tremendous verve with which the Narodowa chorus sang throughout the evening made one acutely aware of the power lying behind this deceptively trivial comedy. —Simon Williams



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