Roman Statkowski's Maria Opens at the Wexford Festival

 

Conducted by Tomasz Tokarczyk and directed by Michael Gieleta, the opera retells the tragic story of Maria, her husband Wacław and the father whose greed leads to a grisly demise for both lovers

The opera is based on Antoni Malczewski's 1825 Romantic poem "Maria" (Ukranian Tale) about a man who favours power and wealth to the extent that he orders his son's wife dead so that he can marry a woman of greater status. Wacław decides to avenge his wife's death and kill his father, but the appearance of his wife's hand stops him from committing the deed. Instead he kills himself in a tragic ode to true love. The drama is set against the backdrop of the Polish and Lithuanian battle against the invading Tatars.

Roman Statkowski is regarded as one of the most important Polish composers before Szymanowski. He studied with Rubinstein at St Petersburg and was influenced by Mussorgsky, Richard Strauss and Pfitzner. When he was working as a composition teacher in Warsaw when he entered a competition in 1903 to compose an opera inspired by Antoni Malczewski's work. Statkowski wrote his own libretto as well as composing the music, and its great symphonic style - inspired by 19th century Russian masters with a Wagnerian thrust of emotion - won Statkowski competition. The opera premiered in Warsaw in 1906 to favourable reviews, it has been performed only a few times since. It was one of the last works written by Statkowski.

Roman Statkowski was born on Christmas Eve 1859 in Szczypiorno, near Kalisz and died on the 12th of November, 1925. He was born into a noble family which was quite musical and he began piano studies early on, followed by composition studies under the tutelage of Władysław Żeleński at the Warsaw Music Institute (today the Warsaw Conservatory). Later, he took on the study of law at Warsaw University, but soon returned to musical studies, studying with Anton Rubinstein in St Petersburg. He began his teaching career in Kiev, although he did compose music when he wasn't teaching. He also served as the founder and editor of the Kwartalnik Muzyczny journal.

He was respected by his peers, fellow composers such as Emil Młynarski, but his shallow collection of compositions held him back from gaining world renown. Also, his style was considered slightly more conservative than the neo-Romanticism that was the order of the day - evident in the works of Szymanowski, Karłowicz, Różycki and Fitelberg. Overall, Statkowski composed several symphonic works, six string quartets, some violin pieces (among them the popular Alla Cracovienne) and close to 60 piano pieces, inspired by Polish dance traditions - the same sort that inspired Chopin - the Krakowiak or the Mazurka. His works indicate traces of Shchumann, Mendelssohn, Moszkowski and even Rachmaninov, along with a number of Russian composers. His exposure to Russian composers in St Pestersburg - Tchaikovsky and Maryinsky - brought a great deal to the particularly tragic ambiance of "Maria". "Maria" was his second opera, after "Filenis", written in 1897.

"Maria" has drifted in and out of the opera house ever since, with reprisals undertaken every few decades - Warsaw in 1919, Poznań in 1936, Wrocław in 1950 and 1965, Bytom in 1989. It has inspired the admiration of many composers, musicians and writers - among them Joseph Conrad. Statkowski's ending strays from the original, having the hero Wacław commit suicide, rather than just disappearing into oblivion. While the opera is rooted in a classic Ukranian tale, the libretto is definitively Polish, drawing upon the Polonaise and Mazurka in the first act.

In 1919, critic Franciszek Brzeziński singled out the opera's qualities, citing

"the fluidity of melodic invention, the melodiousness of the vocal parts, which allow the soloists to show their skills, the outstanding use of the choirs and the orchestra, excellent instrumentation, great harmonic order, a wealth of rhythmic patterns, clarity of forms, and, last but not least, the dramatic power of expression, especially in the orchestral preludes …"

John Allison writes about Wexford's choice of "Maria" for the festival in his review on the autumn Opera and Classicical season in the Telegraph, remarking that "even by Wexford’s own exceptional standards for unearthing rarities, this promises to be something special, based as it is on Antoni Malczewski's Byronic epic poem, and imbued with Polish and Ukrainian folk elements".

Allison devotes an entire piece to "Maria" in Opera Magazine, writing

Given Poland's precarious political situation, with Warsaw still under the Russian yoke in 1906 and other parts of the country ruled from Berlin and Vienna, the significance of the Bogurodzica would not have been lost on Maria's audiences. The oldest Polish religious hymn, it was famously sung before the decisive Battle of Grunwald in 1410 and at other battles during this era. Subsequently losing its significance, it regained its position as a hymn of the motherland during the 19th century. The tsarist censors, probably unaware that it would not actually have been sung in 17th-century Ukraine, could do little about its presence in the opera, and they may not even have noticed the ingenious allusion to the Mazurka Dąbrowskiego ('Dąbrowski's Mazurka', adopted as the Polish National Anthem in 1926) contained in the central section of the mazurka. Clearly, there are layers to be explored in a work that already counts as the missing link between Moniuszko's operas and Szymanowski's King Roger.

Read the full reviews on www.wexfordopera.com and www.telegraph.co.uk.

Roman Statkowski's "Maria" opens on the 22nd ofOctober at the Wexford Opera House, conducted by Tomasz Tokarczyk and directed by Michael Gieleta. The performance repeats 28, 31 October and 4 November, 2011.

The show debuts on the Irish stage as part of the Wexford Festival Opera, which has become one of the world's most important Opera events since it was founded in 1951.

For a full programme, see: www.wexfordopera.com

Source: Wexford Opera, Opera Magazine, The Telegraph

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