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Bartek Barczyk/Poznań Opera House

LEGENDY: Polish Opera and Legenda Bałtyku

Myths, legends, and a unique operatic tradition

Few countries with such a rich operatic tradition as Poland have a repertoire that is so unknown worldwide.

What global audiences usually see barely scratches the surface of what this legacy of operatic tradition offers.

Opera begins in earnest in Poland somewhat later than in the other countries. For much of the country’s history, folk and courtly music dominates. Then, opera is imported from Italy during the Baroque, but Polish opera doesn’t develop a distinct identity until much later.

Perhaps you’ve heard of the best loved Polish Operas: Moniuszko’s Straszny dwór (The Haunted Manor) and Halka, or Szymanowski’s Król Roger (King Roger) - or perhaps you haven’t. Polish opera is full of legends. Let’s start with the best known operas with a strong narrative, steeped in Polish culture and tradition!

Legenda Bałtyku, from the Poznań Opera House. This production was livestreamed on Operavision on 10 December 2017. All photos by Bartek Barczyk.

Baroque Era

Interestingly, the first verified performance of an opera outside of Italy is in Poland, and it was composed by a woman: Francesca Caccini. Her opera, La liberazione di Ruggiero, is also believed to be the oldest opera by a woman composer, and it was written to honour the Polish king Władysław IV. In 1628, this opera was performed in Warsaw, bringing the sounds, sights, and theatricality of this form of expression to the kind of audience in Poland that had the means to become financial patrons.

Francesca Caccini as painted by Orazio Gentileschi Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons

Romantic Operas in the Mid-1800s

Halka is widely considered to be Poland’s most important national opera. Composed by Stanisław Moniuszko, who himself is often called the father of Polish opera, Halka is composed on a libretto by Włodzimierz Wolski. This is an opera about nobles and highlanders, and long-lost love. The forlorn Halka shows up at Janusz’s engagement to Zofia. They are both the children of landowners; Halka is a poor mountain dweller. Much drama ensues, leading to a tragic end. This opera is full of symbols from Poland’s Pagan past, such as a raven that passes ominously over the crowd of would-be wedding revelers, foretelling doom.

By contrast, Straszny dwór (The Haunted Manor) is a much more joyful work by Moniuszko, on a libretto by Jan Chęciński. A manor house has the reputation of being haunted, but it is merely the scheming Cześnikowa, trying to keep two brothers from meeting the two beautiful women who live there. They of course work around her schemes and a happy end is enjoyed by two newly minted couples. 

Teatr Wielki - Polish National Opera

Polish National Opera: Straszny Dwór (excerpt)

New Musical Influences in the 1920s

Król Roger (King Roger) is an opera by another well-known Polish composer, Karol Szymanowski, to a libretto by Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz. It draws from both oratorio and opera as influences, and tells the story of the Christian King Roger and his enlightenment by a shepherd; Szymanowski himself referred to it as a Misterium. Rarely staged, the opera is nonetheless very important. Szymanowski attempts to include musical motifs from various peoples of the Mediterranean region, and is thematically related to the now-lost novel, Efebos, that the composer had himself written.

Kröl Roger, Royal Opera House London (2015). All photos by Bill Cooper.

Legenda Bałtyku

Legenda Bałtyku (The Baltic Legend) is an opera by Feliks Nowowiejski that takes as a theme the myth of the “Slavic Atlantis,” Vineta, as a central plot point. In the opera, the poor fisherman Doman wants to marry Bogna, but the rich merchant Lubor attempts to take her for himself. Doman’s only hope of distinguishing himself is to find the crown of Queen Jurata, legendary ruler of Vineta. 

But where does the legend of Vineta actually come from? Polish historian Jerzy Strzelczyk writes about the development of the mythology surrounding this lost city, and how its story became a part of Polish culture. 

Strzelczyk mentions that when historian Jan Długosz set out to codify the set of Polish Pagan myths and legends in the 1400s, he had far less to rely on than what was available in other Pagan traditions, such as the Celtic and Germanic mythologies. He thus set out to codify a mythology, depending much on extrapolation.

‘When in the fifteenth century our great historian Jan Długosz wanted to fill the gap, he could not rely on any reliable sources and “the pantheon” of Polish paganism described and actually created by him is mainly the result of his creative inventiveness and knowledge of the ancient gods.'

Jerzy Strelczyk, ‘Around the Myth of Vineta- the “Slavic Atlantis” ’
Legenda Bałtyku, from the Poznań Opera House. This production was livestreamed on Operavision on 10 December 2017. All photos by Bartek Barczyk.

Strzelczyk affirms that though stories surrounding a lost Slavic city on the Baltic swirled for centuries, the specific Vineta legend known today was most likely assimilated from the German inhabitants of the Slavic regions of what is now Poland. Polish historian Karol Szajnocha spearheaded the wave of interest in the Vineta legend. He brought the Viking legends into Polish circulation in his Lechitic Beginnings of Poland (1858). Vicar Helmond of Bosau’s work The Chronicles of Slavs was also translated into Polish by Jan Papłoński. Here Vineta was mentioned by name for the first time.

After Poland regained its independence in 1918, suddenly the country had access to the Baltic Sea, and a new wave of stories and legends related to water and sea began. The Vineta legend became enmeshed in the narrative of Polish identity. Here we see Nowowiejski enter with Legenda Bałtyku and its associated pantheon of Slavic Pagan gods, as well as the strong focus on the Vineta myth. 

‘…at this point it is difficult not to notice how well the work fitted in the moods and expectations of a generation raised in the spirit of “Young Poland” and excited by the vision of “Poland by the Baltic Sea,” which in previous centuries had actually turned its back on the Baltic Sea, and for quite a long time was separated from it. At the same time, scientific, artistic (for instance the achievements of Zofia Stryjeńska) and literary interest (Wind from the Sea by Stefan Żeromski, On the Trail of the Sad Devil by Melchior Wańkowicz) in the old Slavic beliefs intensified.’

Jerzy Strelczyk, “Around the Myth of Vineta- the “Slavic Atlantis”

After World War II, Strzelczyk writes, Poland’s territory suddenly swept to the Odra river, and legends were now retold and framed in a more ‘Polish’ context.

‘Although for many years the German the heritage of the “western and northern regions” had been rejected, any real or alleged traces of the old “Polish”, “Piast” or even simply “Slavic” past were eagerly sought and referenced.’

Jerzy Strelczyk, “Around the Myth of Vineta- the “Slavic Atlantis”

The Poznań Opera House brought the lost city of Vineta back from the underwater deep in a production directed by choreographer Robert Bondara, who drew inspiration for the aesthetic from his experiences with freediving.


Poznan Opera

TRAILER | Opera Poznań | Legenda Bałtyku (Nowowiejski)

“The essence of freediving is going deep not only into the water but also into one’s subconscious. In the story of Doman, who falls into the water and searches for a sunken city, I see more than just diving in the Baltic; rather, it is a quest to face the fears and weaknesses that he wants to overcome. For me it is more symbolic, rather than experiencing a real event."

Robert Bondara

Behind the Scenes

The sets are likewise an integral part of the storytelling process. Visitors and viewers can delight in a mysterious setup. Set designer Julia Skrzynecka and her team opened up their atelier to photographer Bartek Barczyk, demystifying the ancient and mythical city of Vineta, as well as the lives of the characters that populate the opera. The costume sketches for the characters are drawn by Martyna Kander and are hand-painted by Zofia Fik-Kwiatowska..

Legenda Bałtyku is available on OperaVision until 09.06.2018 at 23h00 CET here.