[Figure courtesy of Warsaw Public Library – Central Library of the Masovian Province]
He was at the Huguenots in the eighth row of the stalls with a certain Matilda. (9)
The first operatic performances in Poland were staged in the seventeenth century, but it was only 200 years later that they started to enjoy genuine popularity. Stanisław Moniuszko came to be seen as the father of the Polish national opera. His three major operatic works: Halka, The Haunted Manor, and Paria were written in the course of 20 years (1848–1868) and still attract crowds of spectators. After Moniuszko died in 1872, his teaching position at the Warsaw Conservatory was taken by Kraków-born Władysław Żeleński (father to the famous writer and translator, Tadeusz Boy-Żeleński). In 1878, Żeleński was elected the Artistic Director of the Warsaw Music Association. His operas included Konrad Wallenrod, Goplana, and Stara Baśń (An Ancient Tale).
After the collapse of the January Rising, Russian authorities were unfavourable towards Polish art initiatives, and Poles treasured patriotic motifs over artistic values. Composers were dependent on the Tsar’s will and the officiousness of the censors. In Warsaw, operas were staged at the Grand Theatre, but the 25-year period between 1865 and 1890 saw only seven productions of Polish works. Others were based on foreign, mostly Italian sources – and performed by mostly Italian troupes. From time to time, the theatre authorities dared to have some titles acted out by the Polish team, but solos were still sung in Italian. Seeking to improve the situation of the Warsaw opera, a distinguished Italian-born conductor and Moniuszko’s associate, Jan Quarantini, founded a private threatre-related school of singing and organised a new operatic team. In spite of these efforts, the end of the nineteenth century was not a successful time for the Warsaw opera.
Upon Moniuszko’s death, the conductor post was given to Cesare Trombini, who mostly worked with Italian artists. Some of the acclaimed performances of the period included Verdi’s Aida, Otello, and The Power of Fate; Grossman’s Duch wojewody (The Ghost of Governor); Ponchielli’s La Gioconda; and Mascagni’s Cavaleria rusticana.
A major artistic event came in 1879, the year of Wagner’s Lohengrin premiere in Warsaw. The composer’s music was widely discussed in Poland even earlier; Moniuszko, for example, called him not just a reformer, but a redeemer of narrative music.
Warsaw critics often deplored a raw and sketchy directing style as well as poor scenography and costumes. Władysław Bogusławski (grandson to a famous Polish director and playwright, Wojciech Bogusławski) once wrote: Landau is complaining about the scenery in La Favorite. We’re lucky he has not seen Robert le diable, La Juive, Les Huguenots, or Le prophète. How fortunate he has not had a ghost procession emerge from the trapdoor and march in front of him squealing and screeching like unoiled hinges, that he did not have to face the tarnished and scratched set of the charming surroundings where Alice is supposed to be looking for her fiancé […]. It is not money, but a good director that is needed to ensure that the blonde-haired Halka who runs onstage to drown herself does not jump into the river as a brunette; […] that actors and singers, while closing or opening stage windows, do not put their hands through the imaginary windowpanes; no money is required to take care of all these details, but some prudent and attentive thinking is. Paying attention to the craft and artistry of this world and its laws here, there and everywhere is enough. […] Our theatre has a whole collection of sets, costumes and props so complete that comparing them with what can be actually seen on stage remains a mystery to anyone unaware of the terrible inertial power of routine.
In The Doll, opera is mentioned only once. Ignacy Rzecki notes down in his journal that the notorious flirt clerk Mraczewski was seen watching Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots with an unknown girl called Matilda. This could indicate the author’s low opinion of this type of musical art.
- Fritza Wernicka opis Warszawy z 1876 roku, vol 2. Życie, trans. and annotated by I. and J. Kosim, in Warszawa XIX wieku (1795-1918), Warsaw 1971.
- T. Sivert, Teatry warszawskie w latach 1865-1890, in Teatr polski od 1863 r. do schyłku XIX wieku, ed. T. Sivert, Warsaw 1982.