UK première of Moniuszko’s Raftsman

When one’s operatic excursion is off the beaten track in two different senses – a rare work in an unknown venue – there are definitely risks involved. But the UK première of Moniuszko’s Flis (The Raftsman) was too tempting to resist since I had enjoyed two other works by this Polish composer, Halka and The Haunted Manor. Admittedly Flis is a one-act piece and its dramatic content is slight; apart from Mozart’s Bastien and Bastienne, I have not encountered a simpler plot. Father wants daughter to marry a socially more acceptable chap (a hairdresser from Warsaw) rather than the eponymous raftsman. The frustrated lover threatens to leave the village to seek out a long-lost brother; and it suddenly turns out that the hairdresser is that brother who, of course, magnanimously relinquishes his claim over the girl. Conventional and flimsy this may be, but Moniuszko’s music turns it into something else. Exuberant and sparkling with charming, lilting melodies and catchy dance-like rhythms, with – when  appropriate – a few harmonically dark touches, it engages the listener in what would otherwise be trite happenings on the stage.

But another question arose. That the work was to be given in the Polish Social and Cultural Association, a community centre in Hammersmith, rather than in a conventional opera house generated some apprehension: would the performers be of sufficient quality to justify a 400 mile round trip? Fortunately, the answer was, Yes. Although there was a reduced orchestra of ten players, they were imbued with the enthusiasm of conductor Stephen Ellery and gave a lively, energetic account of the score. The experienced soprano Ania Jeruc was in her element in the role of Zosia, the daughter. She has the technique to trill her way through the coloratura passages but also the richness of voice to fill out the more passionate utterances. Tomasz Tracz, as her lover, pushed his tenor to an unnecessarily high volume and in consequence the tone hardened. But Przemyslaw Baranek as the Barber sang elegantly and was dapper in appearance and movement. He would do well were he to move from Warsaw to Seville. There were good supporting performances from Marcin Gesla and Lukasz Biela.

Because Flis is such a short work, it was decided to start the evening with extracts from other Moniuszko operas. Apart from some attractive folk-dancing by the Karolinka dance group, this was not a success, the singers of solo arias coming onto the stage in appropriate costumes but without any dramatic context in which to communicate the arias which were, in any event, not that well sung. Nevertheless what followed was yet further evidence that opera on the fringe can be refreshingly enjoyable.