As adjunct to “Chopin and His World” at Bard College, Bard produced a single performance of the most popular 19th Century Polish opera: Halka. This was a low-budget minimalist production that featured maximalist singing and interesting music. I was especially taken by the symphonic texture of the Overture and the suitability of the music to the language and characters.
Halina Goldberg’s pre-concert lecture pointed out the difficult history of the opera’s evolution from dealing with Russian censorship to its two-stage incarnation from a two act presentation in Vilnius to its four act production ten years later in 1848 Warsaw. Halka offers the eternal triangle of the upper class handsome playboy who has a peasant class pregnant mistress, while engaged to an upper class lady. The plot is slow, clear, and sprinkled with some veritable ironies. My favorite satiric line was that “A Lord’s smile is as true as the Virgin’s tears.” I’m not sure how that line made it through the censor.
Soprano Amanda Majeski as Halka filled the room with her natural sounding voice full of longing and pathos. Her role dominates the opera and Majeski delivered volume, nuance, and remarkable acting savvy. Tenor Myles Mykkanen as Jontek, the peasant enamored of Halka, provided both chaste and hopeless passion as well as common sense with a clear sturdy voice. Baritone Aubrey Allicock as the privileged playboy appeared more likable than one might expect in the role as he melted for love and settled for inheritance while suavely singing all the way to the church and high society. Mezzo-soprano Teresa Buchholz as the titled lady was in better voice than I have heard her in the past, yet her role was to shine only in the first act.
Sosnoff Theater did not employ the pit: singers have to compete with the full volume of the orchestra. which is this case was considerable; also, there is reduced space for staging with a full orchestra on stage, but this was semistaged with singers moving through the audience and orchestra. This minimalist approach to staging was imaginative and worked more effectively than one might imagine. The opera has some dance numbers which were managed in little space, yet the performers were amateurs with the men being slightly better on their feet. The pageant of folk dancing has only an atmospheric role in the opera and often appears to be gratuitous comic relief, tourist postcards from a bygone era. The mazurka dance itself was half ballet and half feeble Cossack, when it needed to be robustly Cossack and fiercely Turkic. The chorus, ably directed by James Bagwell, placed behind the orchestra sang with soaring commentary. Instead of singers wielding their own flashlights, it might have been better if they had tablets for lyrics and score.
The wedding occurs, Halka gives birth, the potato blight strikes, Halka turns near-skeleton, her milk dries up, the baby dies. She commits suicide, which was dramatically staged. I would have preferred the two men to indulge in a recriminating dialogue aria, but to place the peasant on the same conversational level would have been taboo at that time.
Halka is a good little opera with wonderful music and in this case most excellent singers. Leon Botstein conducted with energy and finesse. I was pleased to see Halka staged with more clever imagination than sumptuous resources (which would be but irrelevant spectacle), yet I doubt that this little gem has universal appeal in the tsunami of global culture. But Majeski's performance and the lush, dramatic music left a viewer more than satisfied.