Wednesday, March 06, 2019

Ignacy Jan Paderewski, Manru (1901)


Hey look, it's another Polish opera, this one by a one-time Prime Minister of Poland. How about that? It's also to date the only Polish opera ever to be performed at the Met, albeit in English translation.

It takes place in a peasant village in, presumably, Poland. A local girl, Ulana (Ewa Tracz), has married and had a child with a gypsy, the title character (Peter Berger), which has led to her being disowned by her mother (Anna Lubańska) and generally scorned by the people; in the first act, she begs for acceptance without success. In the second act, Manru tries to change his itinerant ways to live a life with her in the village, but feels pulled back to his previous life; in the third and final, the gypsy caravan to which he belonged, and especially his former flame, Aza (Monika Ledzion-Porczyńska), try to get him to rejoin them. Things are resolved, as things are. Operavision makes much of how this allegedly sheds light on anti-Roma prejudice, but I think that's pushing things: the Romani characters are portrayed in typical ways, as magic thieves and beguilers; not exactly unsympathetic, but really. Come on.

[Sidenote: look, I am REALLY aware of the problems with using the word "gypsy," and I have internal arguments about whether I should. What I always come back to is that in old material like this, we almost certainly aren't thinking of the people as an actual ethnic group, and referring to them as such feels weirdly anachronistic. But, I could be barking up the wrong tree. I have no wish to slander any ethnic group, which I hope would be obvious to anyone who's read this blog for any length of time.]

This production takes place, I think, in the sixties, or at any rate, not in a nineteenth-century peasant village. I recently read this article about Regietheater, which made me understand why some people are so resistant to changing the context of an opera, but let's be reasonable: there are travesties of the sort that the article describes, and then there are benign setting changes, and confusing the two seems unhelpful. Still, this particular setting change only partially works: the first act, among fashionable society girls, really doesn't at all, because it's just so obvious that this is meant to be in a particular setting, and it's not, leading to some problems parsing what's even supposed to be happening. It's better in the latter two acts, though, and in the third, where the caravan is portrayed as a sort of hippie biker gang, it works very well indeed. Super-cool and appropriate visuals.

Paderewski's music is beautiful and dramatic, but I wasn't quite feeling this at first. It felt dramatically slack and just sort went on and on without making as much of an impact as one would hope, and I was thinking, man, is this going to be another disappointment? But then holy shit, man, the third act explodes onto the scene, and all is forgiven. Mezzo-soprano Monika Ledzion-Porczyńska as Aza steals the show, with a presence that is missed elsewhere (although there's an extent to which the material may not have provided the opportunity), and the whole thing just rocks hard. Also, did I mention the diegetic fiddle-playing? Great stuff.

Something odd about this production, however, for better or worse. Take a look at this plot summaryNote the typically operatic ending. And then know that the ending here is...not that, by a long shot. I don't know that you'd call it "happy," quite, but it's not nearly that grim. I really don't know what to think about this; I'd love to hear a directorial justification. I mean, you might ask, "is this thematically appropriate?" but so many operas, even well-regarded operas, are--and I don't mean this as a criticism--tragedies for no particular reason except that tragic operas are a thing. One might reasonably suggest that one should ere on the side of doing what the composer wanted to do, and in some cases that's clearly right (see that article about Regietheater), but here, eh. I can't bring myself to viscerally mind.

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