The Haunted Manor
The Haunted Manor ( Straszny dwór ) is an opera in four acts composed by Polish composer Stanisław Moniuszko in 1861–1864. The libretto was written by . Despite being a romance and a comedy, it has strong Polish patriotic undertones, which made it both popular with the Polish public and unpopular – to the point of being banned – by the Russian authorities which controlled most of Poland during that era.
It is considered Moniuszko's best opera, and also the greatest among all 19th-century Polish opera scores. However, it is mostly unknown outside Poland.
Background and reception
In the middle of the nineteenth century, Poland was partitioned by Russia, Prussia and Austria and Polish culture struggled against Russification and Germanization policies. Many contemporary Polish writers, artists and musicians readily reflected that struggle, and this opera did so both in the story and in the music.
The story represents both an idyllic view of life in a Polish country manor house, and at the same time an idealistic preoccupation with the patriotic duties of the soldier, the military virtues of courage, bravery, and readiness to take up arms against any enemy of the nation, and the importance of family honor. It presents in its opening scenes the obvious conflict between those patriotic aspirations on the one hand, and every man's desire for a quiet home life, love and marriage, on the other. The fact of the opera's nationalistic content is proven by the adverse reaction of the Russian censor to its appearance, and reflected in its lasting place in the hearts of many Polish people.
The opera is one of the most popular opera scores in Poland, praised for imaginative harmonies, excellent construction of group scenes, subtle but colourful instrumentation, a melodic inventiveness of great sophistication, the composer's individual operatic drama style, integration of Polish songs and dances (Mazurkas, Polonaises, Varsoviennes, Polkas, Dumkas, and Krakowiaks), and finally, the captivating Polish atmosphere.
Performance historyStraszny dwór was first performed in the Teatr Wielki, Warsaw, on 28 September 1865, and received only two more performances before being banned by the censor of the tsar of Russian Empire which controlled Poland at the time. The Polish patriotic undertones of this piece were deemed dangerous, particularly as the January Uprising had ended only two and a half years earlier. Moniuszko lived until 1872 but the opera, considered his best and most original, was never performed again in his lifetime.
An English language version of The Haunted Manor was created in 1970 by translator Dr. George Conrad working with opera singer and singing teacher Mollie Petrie. The world premiere of this English version was given by the University of Bristol Operatic Society in 1970, which caused some excitement in the Polish expatriate community in England because of the opera's theme of Polish nationalism, at a time when Cold War tensions were high (Poland was then part of the Warsaw Pact), as it had been when the opera first appeared. Thus, unusually, many Polish people travelled to Bristol to attend – and warmly applaud – what was in fact a fine amateur production by university students. That English version has been performed a number of times in England since 1970, including in an [http://www.mvdaily.com/articles/2001/04/dwor1.htm acclaimed] production by [http://www.operasouth.co.uk Opera South (formerly Opera Omnibus)] in February 2001.
In April 2009, a new English translation, written by Pocket Opera founder Donald Pippin and funded by the National Endowment of the Arts, was presented by Pocket Opera in San Francisco.
The two brothers Stefan and Zbigniew and their servant Maciej are returning home from war. While enjoying a parting drink with their comrades, the brothers swear to remain single and to live in a household free of women, in order to be ready to lay down their lives for their country when needed. "For if I married a lovely woman, how could I leave her to go to war?"
On arriving at the family home, the brothers are given the traditional welcoming offering of bread and salt, and they look forward to a life of peace and tranquillity. Their dream is soon shattered by the arrival of their aunt Czesnikowa, who immediately unveils her plans to marry them off to two girls she has chosen for them. The brothers explain their vow, and inform her that they are off to visit an old friend of their father's, Miecznik, (the "sword bearer") to collect money due to them.
Miecznik lives in a manor at Kalinow, and he has two daughters with whom Czesnikowa is sure the brothers will fall in love, contrary to her own plans. She tries to put them off their visit by telling them that the manor is haunted.
It is New Year's Eve and, inside the "haunted" manor, Miecznik's daughters Hanna and Jadwiga are preparing for the customary fortune-telling to determine who will be their future husbands. Wax is melted, and they see the shapes of soldiers' helmets, pikes and chargers. Hanna is being courted by a foppish barrister, Damazy, who insists that he can see his wig and tail coat in the wax. Miecznik looks on indulgently and then explains to the assembled crowd that the type of husband he seeks for his daughters is brave, a soldier and a patriot, mindful of customs and traditions – a description that Damazy does not measure up to.
Czesnikowa arrives in advance of Stefan and Zbigniew, with the intention of portraying them as cowards in order to put Miecznik and his daughters off. At that moment, a hunting party led by Skoluba bursts in, and a heated debate concerning the killing of a boar ensues. Skoluba is adamant that he killed it, but it transpires that two strangers and their servant were seen at the time of the shooting and that one of the strangers actually shot the boar. Stefan and Zbigniew arrive with Maciej, and the two sisters decide to test out what Czesnikowa has told them by playing a trick on the brothers. Damazy, anxious to eliminate his rivals, has the same idea and involves Skoluba, who had hoped to take credit for killing the boar and now resents the brothers' presence, in his plan.
It is night. The visitors retire to bed, the brothers in one room and Maciej in another, where Skoluba points out two life-size portraits of fine ladies, and a clock, all of which have magic properties. In an aria with a splendid triple-time melody, he successfully manages to scare Maciej out of his wits, and then he leaves him alone.
Stefan and Zbigniew arrive and merely laugh at Maciej's superstitious fears. Zbigniew takes Maciej off to sleep, leaving Stefan alone. The clock mysteriously chimes and Stefan is reminded of his mother. Zbigniew, unable to sleep, joins him and the brothers admit to each other that they have fallen in love with Hanna and Jadwiga, despite their vows. They are completely unaware that the two girls are hiding behind the portraits, and that Damazy is in the clock. They decide to investigate the source of the strange sounds they hear. Damazy comes out from his hiding place and, to save his skin, invents a story (told to another fine tune) that the house is known as the 'Haunted Manor' as a result of it having been built with the proceeds of some infamous acts. The rather moralistic brothers decide they cannot stay, and make plans to leave straight away.
Discovering the boys about to leave, Miecznik believes them to be cowards after all; but Maciej repeats Damazy's story. Miecznik is about to reveal the truth about his house when a party of revellers and dancers burst into the house, one of whom is Damazy in disguise. When confronted, Damazy explains that he is in love with Hanna, and leaves hurriedly.
Miecznik then explains that his great-grandfather had nine beautiful daughters and that every man who came to the manor would propose to one of them. Envious mothers with unmarried daughters who lived nearby grew to refer to the manor as "haunted" as it obviously had magic powers. Stefan and Zbigniew apologise for their suspicions, and declare their love for Hanna and Jadwiga. Miecznik gives his blessing to his daughters and the brothers. Everyone is happy – except for the schemers Czesnikowa, Damazy, and Skoluba.