Manru was Paderewski’s only scenic work and the first music drama in Polish opera. It is a touching love story with social inequality and intolerance in the background.
The idea for the opera, based on Józef Ignacy Kraszewski’s The Cottage Outside the Village (Chata za wsią), was originally named Manolo and created in 1889, when the composer met the journalist and sculptor Alfred Nossig, who later wrote the libretto. Their meeting came up at the same time as Paderewski received a proposition from a Dresden theatre to write an opera. Despite the fact that the first draft was ready after a few months, the composer was preoccupied with his piano career and work on the composition went slowly and was frequently interrupted for longer periods. Paderewski changed the final version three times, some scenes were corrected even a dozen times.
Manru was meant to crown Paderewski’s career as a composer and show his talent to those who doubted his ability to write operas. The artist wanted to create an original piece of work with references to highland and Romani motives.
A private viewing of Manru took place in Königliches Opernhaus in Dresno on the 29th May, 1901. The opera was conducted under the baton of Ernest von Schuch, with the composer and many distinguished guests, including Teodor Leszetycki and Hugo Wolff, present for the opera. The cast included: Georg Anthes (tenor), Annie Krull (soprano) and Karl Scheidemantel (baritone), whereas the decorations were created based on Zakopane drafts, and some costumes were brought directly from Zakopane. Few days later, on the 8th June, 1901, the official premiere took place in the City Theatre in Lviv and was conducted by Francesco Spetrino. Helena Modrzejewska and the composer’s wife were also present. The cast included Aleksander Bandrowski, Helena Zboińska-Ruszkowska and Józef Szymański. Paderewski’s opera was already a huge success in Dresno but in Lviv Manru was received with enthusiastic acclaim. After the private viewing, Edward Pierson wrote in Die Musik:
Next to great erudition, in the score one finds standalone talent, melodic ingenuity, and gripping effervescence. Paderewski has fantasy and temperament. If Manru was composed exclusively of the scene in the second act when Manru interact with Ulana, when we hear a touching love song, see the loving pair, the introduction to the third act and a R omani march, we would already give it an honourable place in contemporary opera.
The action of the first act of the opera takes place in a mountain village in the Tatra Mountains. A group of girls is preparing for the harvest festival – they weave flowers into garlands and wreaths. Their happiness is not shared by Jadwiga, who mourns her daughter Ulana who was seduced and kidnapped a year earlier by Manru, a travelling Romani. The sudden appearance of the bizarre dwarf Urok, who is in love in Ulana, brings laughter and taunts. Jadwiga’s daughter approaches her house and asks for forgiveness. The old highlander is ready to accept her back under the condition of leaving Manru. She cannot accept the condition as she is still in love with her husband. Ulana suspects Manru of secret love for Aza, a beautiful Romani, and tries to strengthen their love. She is helped here by Urok, who promises her to bring a love potion. In the meantime, the highlanders welcome Manru to the village with hateful cries. The Romani is saved by Jadwiga, though she curses her daughter’s husband.
The second act moves the action to the forest, where Manru works as a smith in a forge, while Ulana lulls their baby to sleep. The man starts to miss freedom and mobility, he is willing to release himself from the inhibiting bonds of love. Meanwhile, Ulana finds out from the old Romani Jagu that the beautiful Aza is still in love with Manru. Ulana decides to give her husband the love potion given her by Urok, which results in the awakening of Manru’s feelings towards his wife.
The third act opens when Manru awakens on the banks of Morskie Oko. Others from the village approach him. Aza is among them and their feelings quickly return. However, the chief Oros, who is also in love with Aza, does not agree to accept Manru into the camp. The rest of them are against this decision and call Manru the king. Oros promises him revenge. When Ulana discovers her husband’s betrayal, she jumps into the lake. Oros attacks Manru and pushes him from the rock into the abyss.
Manru is Paderewski’s only scenic work and the first music drama in Polish opera. It is a touching love story with social inequality and intolerance in the background. For crossing moral borders, the protagonists pay the highest price, while their love is exposed to severe tests. The culminating point, the most tragic and touching moment of the opera, is not the moment when the protagonists die but in the second act when Manru’s lust for freedom is clashed with Ulana’s faithful sacrifice for her husband.
Paderewski managed to combine a dramatic idea with the principles that rule the opera. His work lacks an overture, the action of the first act begins with a dozen-beat introduction of the orchestra. Similarly to Richard Wagner’s dramas, the composer used themes accompanying particular figures and perfectly representing their moods and emotions: Ulana is symbolised by bass melodies of sad and descending direction, Manru’s accompaniment is energetic in the motive where one can hear repeating hits in anvil. Apart from the main ‘themes’, we hear alpine and Romani motives. Paderewski did not include any original quotes from folklore but composed his own melodies and large passages (alpine dances, girls’ choir and the Romani march) that imitate ludic character. All of the vocal parts were written with great accuracy in terms of declamation and are distinct in their melodiousness and lyricism. The most beautiful parts of the opera include Jadwiga’s dumka A Falcon Plummeted Down to Fields (Runął sokół na pola), Ulana’s talk with her mother in the first act, Ulana’s sentimental lullaby My Baby Fall Asleep (Śpij już, dziecię me) in the beginning of the second act, Manru’s aria Ulana! Although in my Heart and the symphonic passages: the introduction to the third act and the Romani march. The orchestral part is treated like a symphony by Paderewski – motives are imaginatively tramping between instruments, building the drama of the scene, a conductor has a great sense and knowledge about tune shadings.
The impressive career of the opera at the beginning of its existence did not last long. After the private viewing in Dresno and the official premiere in Lviv, it was shown only once in the same year – in Prague and a few times in the next year: in Cologne, Zurich, Warsaw, New York (Metropolitan Opera), Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Baltimore. In 1904, premieres took place in Moscow and Kiev. The next time the play was performed was in 1930: in Poznań and Warsaw. In both cities, theatres reopened the opera several times afterwards: Wielki Theatre in Poznań as the first theatre after the Second World War (22nd January, 1961) and Wielki Theatre in Warsaw in 1961 and 1991. In 1961, 1990 and 2006 the premieres took place in Dolnośląska Opera in Wrocław, in 1984 and 1987 in Wielki Theatre in Łódź, in 2006 in Opera Nova in Bydgoszcz and in 2009 in Śląska Opera in Bytom.
The only complete recording of Manru was created in 2001 by Dolnośląska Opera under the baton of Ewa Michnik who performed together with such soloists as: Ewa Czermak as Ulana, Taras Ivaniv as Manru, Barbara Krahel as Jadwiga and Agnieszka Rehlis as Aza. The record was released in 2004 on two CDs recorded by DUX Recording Producers.
Author: Anna Iwanicka-Nijakowska, July 2010, translated by AW, October 2016.