By Raymond Sokolov
LVIV, Ukraine — A peasant girl falls for the son of a rich landowner. Despite his promises of everlasting love, he abandons her, pregnant, for the daughter of an even richer local squire. The wretched humble heroine of the tale miscarries and then leaps to her death.
Name this opera.
Of course, you have recognized the heart-rending plot of Halka, Stanislaw Moniuszko’s ever-popular romance set in early-modern Poland. Actually, if you know anything about this founding work of Polish opera, you are either immensely learned, a Pole, or someone lucky enough to have attended Warsaw Chamber Opera’s performance of Halka on Nov. 16 in Lviv, the cultural hub of western Ukraine.
It was the anniversary of Polish independence in 1918 and Lviv, which was part of that ill-fated Polish republic (known then and until 1939 as Lwow), was celebrating Polish music in a Discover Paderewski Festival. Lviv Opera had already mounted its own production a few days before of Moniuszko’s The Haunted Manor. So this hotbed of Ukrainian nationalism has just been fomenting what amounts to a historically remarkable Ukrainian-Polish love feast.
For anyone attuned to the tense and bloody relations of these two European peoples over the centuries, any celebration of Polish culture in Ukraine would be noteworthy. In Lviv, the heritage of this ethnic conflict could not be more profound. In 1848, when Halka premiered in Vilna, a culturally Polish city under Russian domination, Lviv was a city of Poles with a one-third Jewish minority, an island of European culture surrounded by a sea of Ukrainian peasants toiling in a countryside controlled by Polish landowners. To complicate matters further, Lviv was the administrative capital of the imperial Austro-Hungarian province of Galicia and had been since the partition of Poland in 1772. Indeed, until around the time of Stanislaw Moniuszko’s death in 1872, the official language of government and instruction in Lviv was German, and the city’s name was officially Lemberg.
But by 1900, Galician schoolchildren were taught in Polish, and Lemberg’s Polish community was the force behind the construction of the city’s ornate opera house, a 1,000-seat gilded temple of cherubs and caryatids, columns, swags, nymphs, and gauze-clad maidens. This gaudy reflection of Vienna joined Lemberg’s astonishing architectural encyclopedia of every European building style from Renaissance town houses and Italianate baroque churches to the art nouveau style of its time.
And Halka, as the primordial Polish opera, could not have been more appropriate on the stage of this stately monument, except for the tragic events that swept through Lviv after 1918. Poles defeated a Ukrainian army fighting to establish a Ukrainian state in 1923. In 1946, the Red Army seized Lwow and expelled its Poles, creating a cleansed city for Ukrainians from the devastated countryside. (Lwow’s 300,000 Jews had been exterminated by the Germans during World War II.)
So when Gabriela Kamińska took the stage as Halka in Lviv on a chilly Saturday night, the capacity crowd of Ukrainian music lovers (including several priests and a monk in a white cassock) and Polish dignitaries reacted with divided passions deeper than Moniuszko’s simple, musically derivative folk drama might evoke in venues without ties to the Polish past.
Onstage, Warsaw Chamber Opera lived up to its reputation as a fine and able company. With all of Mozart’s opera and much Polish early music in its repertory, it gave Halka a superb production, full of charm and fine vocal acting. The orchestra, precisely led by Ruben Silva, gave respectful support to the attractive ensemble of singers in period garb. Tomasz Rak, a fiery singer, did his best to make a credible case for Jontek, the peasant boy besotted with Halka but unable to save her from her inexplicably indelible infatuation with Janusz.
Then, in the second and final act (this was the Vilna version of the opera, not the later four-act inflation), there emerged a moment of transcendent beauty. Kamińska, as crazed with grief as any Lucia, distilled her sorrow in a restrained, wrenching aria, accompanied to great effect by a solo cello. [Click to play a video of Kamińska performing the same aria.]
Even a non-Slav could not help responding to this. Yet at a time when Ukraine faces imminent financial collapse and bullying from a vulpine Russia eager to re-engulf it, an outsider could not help but wonder if a Lvivian audience might not have felt a certain nostalgia for its city’s Polish past, even while embracing sad Halka as the avatar of a Ukrainian peasant girl oppressed by a Polish aristocrat.
Raymond Sokolov was for nearly 20 years the editor of the Leisure & Arts page of the Wall Street Journal. He studied clarinet with Herman Kushner and much later received a Ph.D. in classics from Harvard.