Purely musically, this performance under the warmly sympathetic baton of the theatre’s music director, Grzegorz Nowak, proved that Manru is a haunting piece, full of dramatic momentum and rich orchestral colour. But Marek Weiss’s staging showed that it is also more than just that. Paderewski based his opera on the novel The Cottage Outside the Village by Józef Ignacy Kraszewski, which presents (unlike the source of Bizet’s gypsy opera) an unglamorous side of gypsy life, also inverting Merimée by having a male anti-hero and by keeping all the major protagonists alive (only just, as it turns out). The story tells of the young gypsy Manru, who leaves his band to marry the peasant girl Ulana, with the result that she is shunned by her villagers—especially her formidable mother, Jadwiga—and eventually abandoned when Manru is lured back to life on the road. In the political climate of 2018, it feels as if the founder of the modern Polish state has a message for today. As the theatre’s general director, Waldemar Dąbrowski, wrote in the programme, ‘The story of love doomed to defeat in confrontation with convention and traditional social norms, powerless in the face of prejudice and deeply rooted superstitions, is essentially a warning against xenophobia and intolerance—a treatise on the crushing force of the community.’
■ Act 1 of Paderewski’s ‘Manru’ in Warsaw, with Anna Lubańska as Jadwiga, Ewa Tracz as Ulana and Mikołaj Zalasiński as Urok
Much of Paderewski’s music dates from the first part of his career, in the 1880s, before his multifaceted career got in the way of composition. Yet Manru, his biggest work, came a little later, one of the few major scores written during summer respites from touring. It took him nearly a decade to complete, which may account for its mixture of styles, and received its premiere in Dresden in 1901 (reaching the Met in 1902 and making triumphantly rapid progress—audiences were guaranteed to flock to an opera by one of music’s original superstars). Alfred Nossig’s libretto was in German, but it was translated into Polish for a production in Lwów that followed just days after the premiere.
Invoking only a little poetic licence, Paderewski’s biographer Adam Zamoyski has a point when he says of the composer’s personal life at the time, ‘It cannot escape notice that the rootless gypsy that Paderewski had become was as tortured as Manru by the choice between cultural assimilation with Paris as represented by Princess Rachel, and return to his own people in the shape of Helena Gorska.’ And at least two influential musical strands compete for space in the score. The ‘Polish verismo’ atmosphere of Act 1 is strongly Slavonic, owing something perhaps to Tchaikovsky. Act 2 is held together by a noticeably Wagnerian fabric (Siegfried came to mind especially, with echoes of its forging scene in the orchestration—and on stage with Manru’s workshop— and its love duet in Manru and Ulana’s moment of passion), but Paderewski’s score is
Opera, December 2018