Mystery score

Mystery score

Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Haunted Manor

A few years ago, Opera News reviewed, and rather liked, a recording of Stanislaw Moniuszko's Straszny Dwor (The Haunted Manor). The title stuck in my head, as did a few excerpts I heard on line, which sounded cheery and charming, and more interesting than, say, Donizetti. I stuck the recording, by the Polish National Opera, on my to-buy list, but it never did float to the top.

Two weeks ago, I caught the sole East Bay performance of The Haunted Manor, staged by Donald Pippin's Pocket Opera. The Haunted Manor turns out to be an extremely slight piece, with a comic plot so thin it makes L'Elisir d'Amore look like Hamlet: Two brothers, lately in the army, vow never to marry so that they'll be perpetually available to defend Poland. They visit with a member of the hometown gentry, where there's mutual attraction between the brothers and the landowner's two daughters. The brothers are challenged to spend a night in the supposedly haunted tower of the manor. The sisters play various tricks on the brothers and their servant. By  morning, the brothers are ready to declare their love and marry the sisters.

Now, I certainly see some potential in this plot. A skilled composer and librettist could have a lot of fun with a haunted house and purported ghosts. 

When I mentioned this to Patrick, his one-word response was "Ruddigore." Sadly, while the lyrics of Pippin's adaptation of The Haunted Manor sound something like cut-rate Gilbert, the Polish opera doesn't come close to the comedic genius that Gilbert & Sullivan were able to achieve in their operettas. Nothing much happens; the libretto just doesn't take advantage of the possibilities inherent in the plot. It's not scary or comically scary. The characters don't have much personality; if only the brothers and sisters were sharply differentiated from each other, if only the servant took on a real life of his own...well, see Cosi fan tutte

And Pocket Opera's presentation made it tough to evaluate the music. They perform with a few strings, a couple of winds, and a piano for the orchestra, to start with. The piano is just plain too dominant; it homogenizes the sound so that the rest of the musicians add a bit of color more than substance. It needn't be this way; Berkeley Opera has had some fine successes with reduced orchestras, as in The Legend of the Ring. And Pippin's trademark from-the-stage narrations had the effect of interrupting whatever dramatic momentum there is in The Haunted Manor. I know that it's part of Pocket's presentation style, but in this case, it didn't serve the music well.

As for the performers, the sisters and the lower-voiced singers all fared better than the tenors; Patrycja Poluchowicz was exceptionally impressive as Anna, the soprano sister (her mezzo sibling, played by Dalyte Kodzis, had much less music).

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