Last Sunday the Polish National Home at The Warsaw hosted the American premiere of the Polish opera Hrabina. First performed in the 1860’s by Polish composer Stanislaw Moniuszko,Hrabina, or The Countess, is widely regarded as the important composer’s first fully mature work. It’s unfortunate that the opera’s arrival on American shores over 100 years later comes during a time of sudden and intensesorrow.
It’s been a difficult two weeks for the Polish community following last week’s tragic plane crash that took the life of Polish president Lech Kaczynski, his wife and many of the country’s most prominent and politicians and military leaders. The entourage had been traveling on a trip to mark the 70th anniversary of the Katyn forest massacre of World War II, in which thousands of Polish officers were executed by Soviet secret police.
“With the sadness, the people needed to have something happy,” said Marie Bindas, a volunteer for OperaOGGINY, the local nonprofit opera company producing Hrabina. The premiere was an occasion where the local community was able to, according to Bindas, “show their sorrow and their enjoyment.”
A full house was in attendance—extra rows of chairs were put out and seating in the balcony was opened.Respectfully dedicated to President Kaczynski, his wife and those who died at Katyn, the night’s program began with a solemn speech by Thomas Lawrence Toscano, conductor and the artistic director of the OperaOGGINYcompany.
“We are subject to two powers,” said Toscano, who cut a striking figure with his flowing mane of shoulder-length gray hair, trim beard and black blazer. “The power of history—and the power of God.” He remarked on the coincidences that accompanied the premiere and the unfortunate tragedy, ranging from the Katyn tragedy to one of the stewardesses aboard the plane who had the surname “Moniuszko.”The speech was followed by a presentation of a YouTube video in memoriam of the late president, his wife and the cabinet members who were killed in the crash.
And then the performance started with an instrumental piano piece played by David Jahn, conducted by Toscano.Incorporating themes of marriage, war, aristocracy and patriotism, the three-act opera centers around a great ball to be held at the house of a recently widowed young countess as two men, Dzidzi, a court dandy, and Kazimierz, a nobleman and a soldier, vie for her affections. The play progresses as Kazimierz moves in and out of favor with the fickle and foppery-loving Countess, eventually realizing the one for him is the Countess’s cousin Bronia—patriotic,modestly beautiful —who has been in love with him the whole time.
The jovial, yet dramatic second act, served to highlight the cultural differences and Moniuszko’s theme of nationalism. Kazimierz, Bronia and Chorazy, Bronia’s grandfather, form the nationalist side—sensitive, sincere, at times clumsily awkward—while Hrabina, Dzidzi, Podczazyc and PannaEwa, represent the “international” side, gaudy, foppish and, although endearing, fundamentally absurd. There were many impressive aspects to the performance—Hrabina, played by MalgorzataKelllis, sang arias in a voice was emotive and confident; Kazimierz, played by Mario Arevalo, sang in a way that was human and poignant.
A strict no photography rule was in place. During one of the pieces, someone took a flash photograph. “Don’t pictures please!” barked the maestro.A little later, another person took one. The maestro turned and glared in the direction of the guilty photographer.
One of the scene-stealers was elderly court member Podczaszyc, played by the expressive Ron Mesa. During the ball rehearsalscene in the second act, Podczaszyc comes out dressed as King Neptune, replete with toga, crown and trident (and sandals). He boldly presides over the festivities, thrusting out his arms in a display of regal power and immense, quivering triceps. Another nice moment was the performance of PannaEwa, played by Elena Laurenti,who sang a comically virtuosicaria that featured intentionally audible consonant sounds, heavy breathing and warm-up exercises.
While the opera was a joyous success, the undertone of sadness remained. Assistant Stage Director Julie Diniz compared to sense of loss at the crash to the sense of loss felt during 9/11.“Especially because the crash last week was in commemoration of the huge tragedy that happened before World War II,” she said. “There were too many similarities to ignore. And it was very moving; they had a memorial service at another location a few days ago. It made people want to come see it because of the pride.It made people very proud to be Polish.”
But the community will pull through, by doing what communities always do in times of distress: by supporting one another. “I was really happy with how pleased everyone was,” said Diniz. “There’s been nothing but positive reaction. It was such a great turn-out today.”
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