“Fra gli abeti il vento geme”, or Moniuszko’s “Halka” by Fabio Biondi

GNIEWOMIR ZAJĄCZKOWSKI AND SZYMON ŻUCHOWSKI

The Chopin and his Europe International Music Festival is on for the fourteenth time, this year under the slogan “From Chopin to Paderewski”. The reference to the latter was certainly dictated by the celebrations related to the 100th anniversary of Poland regaining its independence.

The closer you look at the achievements of Ignacy Jan Paderewski, the clearer you see that his diplomatic actions, and perhaps his performances, deserve greater credit, than his compositions. Most of his own pieces are somewhat generic musical Biedermeier, and it would be difficult to explain the overrepresentation of this type of pieces at the Festival with other reasons than the historical and sentimental ones. Nonetheless, it has to be admitted that one of the advantages of Chopin and his Europe Festival has always been the noticeable presence of Polish music; thanks to the recordings it has released, the National Frederic Chopin Institute has reintroduced many remarkable but forgotten works to a wider audience.

This year, the independence-related national boost resulted in a greater clichéness of the programme when it comes to the selection of Polish composers’ works: next to the inevitable Chopin’s piano concertos and Paderewski’s one, the organizers opted for the most obvious opera by Stanisław Moniuszko –Halka (whereas they could have chosen the less known Flis or Paria) in its most-played four-act version, the so called “Warsaw” edition. The added value of this point of the programme was undoubtedly the language version of the opera, which we heard in a 19th-century Italian translation by Giuseppe Achille Bonoldi.

It was also the first rendition of this opera on period instruments – it was performed by the musicians from the Europa Galante orchestra, specialists in this practice, conducted by Fabio Biondi. They have already appeared on this Festival with concert performances of operas:  Bellini’s Norma and I Capuleti e i Montecchi, as well as Verdi’s Macbeth. Biondi is an apt opera conductor but he has a strange taste for soloists and he casts in the main roles such singers as Vivica Genaux or Nadja Michael, who may have had some merits, today, however, they resemble more vocal oddities.

This time Biondi was rather lucky when it comes to the soloists. Before the Festival, it had been proudly announced that Aleksandra Kurzak and Roberto Alagna would appear in the main roles. They constantly triumph in French TV broadcasts and regularly favour morning shows as well as illustrated magazines with their presence. Perhaps it is this excess of activities that caused Alagna’s inability to prepare Lohengrin’s role for Bayreuth, which resulted in his name being crossed out of the cast; it is possible that for similar reasons the couple resigned from the performance in Warsaw. Thanks to that, we had the opportunity to hear a much more sensible Jontek and quite an interesting Halka.

The part of the abandoned highlander maid, Halka, was sung by Tina Gorina – a Spanish lyric soprano, whose vocal features gave Halka a whole different expression than the ones we are used to in Polish performances. It turned out however, that this Halka works very well and such an approach to the part also has its justification: it showed us a simple, modest person, suffering mostly to herself, and not leading crowds onto the barricades; a girl who stirs emotions but who does not tear you apart. It was especially audible in such fragments as “Gdybym rannym słonkiem była” (“If I could be the morning sun”) or “Jako od wichru krzew połamany tak się duszyczka stargała” (“As a bush broken by the wind, so worn out is my soul”), especially that Baldini translated this fragment as:  „Sereno al pari del ciel di maggio de’ miei verd’anni scorse il matin”, which literally means “The morning of my green years, as bright as sky in May, is now faded”. Gorina showed great precision and coherence in shaping her part, which compensated for the singer’s problems with the lower notes.

Jontek, her partner, was sung by Matheus Pompeu, who also approached his part in a belcanto manner, which – as opposed to the Polish performance tradition – makes a lot of sense, as Moniuszko, while composing Halka, based his work on French and Italian opera, just adding Polish staffage to it. Pompeu operates a light, agile, Donizettian voice, focusing on the esthetics of the sound, achieving expression purely with vocal measures, and not with overacting. His Jontek is a sad boy, who sings his regrets in a cantilena way; thanks to his musicality and good technique, Pompeu retrieves from Moniuszko’s music its Italian idiom, and at the same time underlines the Polish one, while in a lot of traditional Polish renditions of this opera, the dance-like character and freshness of many fragments is lost due to excessive pomposity and overstretching the tempi. Jontek’s main aria “ Szumią jodły na gór szczycie” („Fra gli abeti il vento geme”, “The pines rustle at the mountain top”) in his rendition revealed its character close to kujawiak (one of Polish national dances), instead of being drowned out with veristic screams, which sound rather like laments of an Italian pizzaiolo who burned his pie than a heartbroken, young highlander.

Gorina and Pompeu created a well-matched duo complemented by trio of characters, radically different in their manner of singing, closer to Polish performance tradition:  Zofia/Sofia (Monika Ledzion-Porczyńska), Janusz/Gianni (Robert Gierlach) and Stolnik/Alberto (Rafał Siwek). All three seemed a bit trammeled; maybe it resulted from the necessity of relearning their roles in another language. For sure, it is extremely difficult to leave the rut of many years of listening to and singing an opera thus popular in Poland. Siwek is very presentable on stage: had he worn a Polish traditional nobleman’s robe (kontusz) and had some acting tasks, it would have been harder to notice the lack of precision in his performance, both in diction and in intonation (he sung flat, again!). What was even worse, the bass was stuck in a “mental kontusz” and didn’t react much to Biondi’s vision. His part was saved by the sole sound of his voice, both noble and respectable. Thanks to this, Siwek left a better impression than Robert Gierlach, who was the Vivica Genaux of this performance. His Janusz was not thought through when it comes to interpretation, unstable when in vocal emission and not aesthetic in the sound: his voice was “swallowed” and pushed at the same time, which caused unpleasant auditory sensations.

A particular star of the evening was Karol Kozłowski. In his small part he was so tense that this tension would have sufficed for the performer of a main role. His first fragment (cheerful song “Po nieszporach, przy niedzieli, skoro jeszcze słonko jasne”, “After vespers, on a Sunday, when the sun’s still shining brightly”) was rendered with pathos worth of the dramatic finale of Cavaradossi’s aria E lucevan le stelle in Tosca; in his third entrance, where the drama gravity is actually growing, Kozłowski displayed a full-blown hysteria, with an additional voice crack. If his part was at least a little bigger and more important, he could have ruined the whole concert.

The antidote to these shortcomings was the so-called collective protagonist. Once again The Podlasie Opera and Philharmonic Choir under the direction of Violetta Bielecka showed immense class and proved that they are one of the top Polish vocal ensembles. Thanks to them the choral scenes in Halka, in spite of a small cast, sounded powerful and expressive, and were diversified depending on the situation (church choir, highlanders, wedding guests).

The conductor, Fabio Biondi, developed a coherent and interesting concept of Halka in performance –  all the more interesting that he showed its affinity with European opera reaching beyond its Polish national character. Viewing it through the prism of Italian opera, he avoided turning it into a historical reconstruction fair which is often the bane of performances of this work. He emphasized the idiomatic character of numerous dances appearing in this opera without forcing them to sound like folk music, which they are not, although a lot of people with a more dogmatic approach to the national content in music might consider it as a failure to comply with the convention. Not without significance was the fact that in the situation of a concert performance the conductor didn’t have to meet all the requirements associated with the presence of ballet and could allow himself to choose tempi more individually and to mark accents more subtly. Biondi did not neglect the symphonic layer of the work: he took care of highlighting  the instrumentation details of Moniuszko’s score, the quality of which is not inferior to those of the leading composers of the mid-19th century.

Let’s hope that the recording of this evening will soon be released on CD, because – in spite of some imperfections of this performance – the very modest discography of Halka needs extending, and the concert itself deserves coming back to.

 

Polish version of the text first appeared in Kultura Liberalna

14th Chopin and his Europe International Music Festival 

Halka (Italian language version, concert rendition)
lyrics: Włodzimierz Wolski, translated by Giuseppe Achille Bonoldi
music: Stanisław Moniuszko
soloists: Tina Gorina, Matheus Pompeu, Robert Gierlach, Rafał Siwek, Monika Ledzion-Porczyńska, Karol Kozłowski, Mateusz Stachura, Kirill Lepay, Paweł Cichoński
conductor: Fabio Biondi
choir direction: Violetta Bielecka
Europa Galante, The Podlasie Opera and Philharmonic Choir
Polish Radio Concert Studio (S1), 24th of August, 2018