Between the Vaudeville and the Opera: Genre Features of Musical and Theater Works of Vilnius-Minsk period by Stanislaw Moniushko

Publikuota: 2019-06-10 Autorius: Svetlena Nemahai
Between the Vaudeville and the Opera: Genre Features of Musical and Theater Works of Vilnius-Minsk period by Stanislaw Moniushko

Dr. Sviatlena Niemahaj, musicologist – belarusist, assistant artistic director of the creative union ‚Belarusian capella‘


Among several historical and theoretical problems, one of the most complex and undeveloped in the study of the so-called "small" operas by S. Moniuszko is the problem of their genre definition, which has several terminological, analytical and cultural aspects. As a rule, the genre of the first theatrical works of the composer either outlines only in a general manner (for example, opera, operetta) or has significant discrepancies.

S. Moniuszko’s early stage works has very illustrative examples that perfectly illustrate the composer’s creative process from “unpretentious” theatrical genres - operetta, comedy-opera, pastoral, frashka to a full-fledged opera with continuous musical dramaturgy and the absence of conversational dialogues (the Vilnius score “Halka” (1847), created already nine years after the first, though not performed, the “Die Schwiezerhütte” operetta (1838). The outlined path was extremely characteristic of many composers in the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth of the first half of the 19th century: the professionalism of theatrical-dramaturgical thinking of opera creators was refined by simple ones in terms of form and style of comic one- and two-act works. Concerning the author of “Halka”, this thought is confirmed by the words of Henryk Opensky: “taking in the beginning of his theatrical and composing career for the genres of vaudeville and operetta, Moniuszko followed the line of development of Polish composers of the early 19th century: Elsner, Stephany, Kurpinski, Weinert and others”[1].

The terminological diversity in relation to the genre of one work was not unusual for that era: the very concept of the opera genre was extremely diverse. According to E. Novitskaya, in the first thirty years of the XIX century (and actually, later) the opera was called “stage works with unequal participation of music in the matter of the whole”[2]. Under this name such diverse theatrical types as a vaudeville and comic opera, melodrama and pastoral performed. Characteristic are, for example, genre discrepancies of "Lottery": "vaudeville", "opera", "operetta", "frashka".

Genre "poles" in the then opera industry was, on the one hand, vaudeville with its minimal participation of the musical component, on the other - a full-fledged opera without conversational dialogues. In the works of S. Moniuszko of the early period, these poles mean "The Clerks" (the 1840s) and Vilnius "Halka" (1847). However, the most characteristic feature of the composer’s creative work at that time is the balancing between the comedy opera and its vaudeville principles of dramaturgy and the operetta: each of the composer’s early operas actually forms a hybrid sample with an individual set of musical and theatrical characteristics, proportions of the operatic and vaudeville principles proper.

We give a brief description of the most popular opera "subgenres":

At the beginning of the 19th century, when the comedy-opera or, otherwise, vaudeville entered the theater stage of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, their genre-terminological definition had a rather specific meaning. Few musical numbers were often borrowed from folk or popular music by professional authors and did not go beyond the small songs or, more rarely, ensembles in strophic or verse form. In the territories of the former Commonwealth in the first third of the XIX century, French vaudeville was mainly introduced as a ready-made form, but later on, domestic comedy-operas significantly evolved in the direction of deepening the content and strengthening the role of the musical element.

As for the operetes, their characteristic features were usually light, lyrical and humorous subject, as well as vocal numbers that were simple in form and style, alternating with conversational dialogues. It is important to emphasize at the same time that the term "operetta" had a rather broad, even generalizing meaning for the types and subspecies of the "small" operas (comic operas, vaudeville, pastoral, etc.) that are different in their theatrical, dramatic and musical specifics.

Based on the above, we will try to use specific examples to outline the specifics of the genre image of S. Moniuszko’s early stage works.

Quite active in many of the operetes are the actual vaudeville markers. Typically, the typological defining here is not musical, but characteristically theatrical principles that have developed within the vaudeville genre:

• The presence of “playing conditions”, which, according to the vaudeville traditions, are outlined in the second part of the title of the play (for example, in “Carmagnol” - “the French like to joke”). They are set at the very beginning of the performance (scene IV) and determine the development of the plot logic of the relationship between the characters. As a kind of dramatic leitmotif, the conditions of the game are optionally played out throughout the play, having an important formative value.

• Typical for a vaudeville, where everything a priori obeys a comic beginning, in the works of S. Moniuszko stands the ambiguity of the ethical characteristics of the main characters. So, for example, in "Carmagnol" all three musical characters are the lazy eccentric Carmagnol, the infantile Roselle and the morally liberated Katharina - aesthetically reduced, deliberately imperfect. The play also lacks an ethical assessment of the opposing camps (Piedmont peasants and French soldiers).

• Extremely characteristic of the vaudeville genre are the "speaking" names of the actors in the performances that determine the role of the actors. In the “Pastoral” it is Karol Letahlsky, Bonaventura Vykrutach and Naum Pryhavorka, Yan Dobrovich and Shchyretsky. Eloquent is the characters of the clerk Jan Pürkiewicz and his wealthy rival Jan Bibulkevich in "Lottery", the merchant Pepshikevich and Anton Khuditsky in "The Clerks".

• The typical regularity of the vaudeville genre is the duality of the hero's dramatic function. In "Carmagnol", the actor playing the role of blacksmith balances between the experience theater and the performance theater. So, merging with his image in most scenes, in certain episodes Carmagnol is clearly separated from him, addressing directly to the public in the auditorium (a playful monologue about poverty in scene IV of Act I, the final of the play). In the “Pastoral” such appeals come from Naum Pryhavorka (IV Scene I Act, XI Scene I Act, beginning II Act).

• Typical for the vaudeville genre is a request for the sympathy and approval of the public (“Pastoral”, “Carmagnol”).

Many of the early operettas of S. Moniuszko approach the vaudeville genre also for a number of musical features proper, which, nevertheless, are accompanying rather than typologically defining:

• Clear proportional dominant of conversational dialogues over the musical numbers. Classical in this regard is the "Clerks" by S. Moniuszko, who have a total of 6 small musical numbers with F. Skarbka's expanded text. Close to the vaudeville and "Carmagnol", in which musical numbers during the performance are quite rare.

• The advantage of conversational roles over musical ones is quite indicative, which was due to the specifics of mixed theater troupes that operated in the expanses of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the first half of the 19th century (in "Carmagnol" out of 10 actors only 3 have vocals parts).

• Characteristic for vaudeville or comedy-opera intragenre filling. According to traditions, many solo and ensemble numbers of S. Moniuszko's operets are verses (in stanza or verse form with refrain), indicated in the libretto as "songs" ("śpiewka", "śpiewek" - Polish). Along with the songs, characteristics are romances (Roselli in "Carmagnol", No. 9), antreactes ("New Don Quixote", "Carmagnol") and the form of melodrama ("Carmagnol").

• The sequence of musical numbers does not form a dramatic whole. The development of the storyline of the performances takes place in conversational dialogues, while the inserted musical numbers rarely appear in the dramatic nodal episodes of the plays. The main functions of music, which is characteristic of a vaudeville comedy, is a reflection of the general atmosphere of action.

Analysis of the musical material of the early stage works shows that S. Moniuszko could not satisfy either the purely comedic storyline of vaudevilles or their traditional small musical forms. That is why, while retaining certain characteristic features of the genre, which relate at most to dramatic art, the composer, as a rule, surpasses his formal requirements, bringing him closer to the actual opera:

• Unlike many vaudevilles, the musical material of S. Moniuszko’s early operets is exclusively original music (with the exception of "The Clerks", which uses the song "Ou du Lieber Augustin"). In contrast to the "classic" comedy-operas, the play of which could go without music, Moniuszko's self-contained artistic whole forms only a symbiosis of literary and musical components.

• The presence of full-blown operatic forms, which are most often used in an ensemble and choral scenes, is evident in the early operets.

• An essential step taken by S. Moniuszko on the way from vaudeville to a full-fledged opera is the deepening of the content and the expansion of the figurative spectrum of the comedy by means of music. It is in the musical numbers that the characters of the main characters are diversified, in which the composer seeks to express not so much comic as lyrical and genre-everyday features ("Lottery").

• An extremely significant and fundamental moment is becoming a big part in choir performances. Thus, in the " Carmagnol" the choir participates in seven of the twelve numbers of the operetta, carrying various dramatic loads and playing a large formative role (using the arched framing of scenes: the peasants choir in Act I, "We all run to the mountains" (No. 1), the soldier "Out of fear from us, anxiety," scenes VII and VIII).

Considering the conditions of the theatrical life of that time, led by his talent, the young composer tried his best to change the status of the music in the play and constantly overcome the established genre norms and boundaries. The presence of full-fledged opera arias, ensembles, and choirs, the desire to build large dramaturgically effective scenes and unite the composition into a single whole by means of thematic generality of the work testifies to this in operettas. We conclude our article with a quote by authoritative expert on the life of composer Witold Rudinsky, who believed that "the operetta and vaudeville, written in Berlin and in the first years of life in Vilnius, were a preparation for great stage creativity, a reason for testing the strength, developing the abilities of an opera composer"[3].


[1] Opieński, H. Stanisław Moniuszko. Życie i dzieła. Lwów ; Poznań: Nakładem wydawnictwa polskiego. 1924: 78.

[2] Nowicka, E. «Słownik zaklętych słów do muzyki» (O librettach oper Józefa Elsnera i Karola Kurpińskiego). Opera Polska w XVIII i XIX wieku / pod red. M. Jabłońskiego, J. Stęszewskiego i J. Tatarskiej. Poznań : Wydawnictwo Poznańskiego towarzystwa przyjaciół nauk. 2000: 49.

[3] Rudziński, W. Stanisław Moniuszko: studia i materiały. Cz. I [Okres wileński]. Warszawa: PWM. 1955.: 77.

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