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Polish opera prehistory – a bevy of “firsts”

As you may know, the first work considered to be an opera in the modern sense of the term was Dafne by Jacopo Peri, written around 1597 in Florence. The oldest surviving opera score is also one by Peri (composed in collaboration with Giulio Caccini) – it is called Euridice, and it comes from around 1600. Apart from Florence, another early opera center was Mantua. Monteverdi wrote his first opera La Favola d’Orfeo there in 1607. Then, in the 1610s and 1620s opera spread to Rome and Bologna. It was roughly at that time when the first ever opera was to be performed outside of Italy

Sometime before March 8th 1628 Galatea, an opera by Sante Orlandi (music) and Gabriel Chiabrera (libretto) was staged in… Warsaw, Poland of all the places in the world! This was even before the first operas were performed in Venice! Warsaw was the fifth city in world history to see an opera, and the first non-Italian one!

How did this strange fact come to be? It appears the young son of king Sigismund III Vasa, the future king Władysław (Ladislaus) IV Vasa was very fond of the arts, including music. In 1625, while he was visiting Florence, he attended a staging in his honor of La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina – the first opera by a woman composer (Francesca Caccini). The prince obviously enjoyed the show – he arranged for this novelty to be brought over to Poland, and that’s how the 1628 Warsaw performance of Galatea came to be. Later that same year Francesca Caccini’s opera itself was also performed at the Warsaw court (thus becoming the second opera to be ever performed outside Italy, apparently).

When the prince became king Władysław IV Vasa he had one of the halls of the Royal Castle in Warsaw made into an opera theatre. This new venue was the first permanent opera stage in the world (it preceded the Venetian Teatro di San Cassiano by 2 years) – the first opera performed there (in 1635) was Giuditta (by unknown authors). Władysław IV brought over from Italy composer Marco Scacchi’s opera troupe – these musicians were usually authors of the music, while the king’s secretary Virgilio Puccitelli (another Italian) penned most of the libretti. The king’s opera was closed down in 1648, after his death. More than a dozen operas are known to have been staged in Poland during his lifetime but not a single one of them survives.

During the next 100 years nothing much really happened in Polish operatic life. The genre did not entirely disappear – operas were staged now and then – but these were always very special events, and no regular opera theatre was run. This was to change only during the reign of Augustus III of Poland (1734-1763) – who built the first opera house in Poland (in Warsaw), and brought over Johann Adolf Hasse. It was during that time that the first Polish opera (sung in Polish) was composed.

All this is very well and interesting but the truth is that Polish opera did not achieve true greatness before Stanisław Moniuszko (b. 1819). Or if it did, those great operas did not survive to our times. So, once again, I have typed myself into a corner, and have to promise that I will devote, one day, a separate post to Moniuszko… 😉

And with that promise I end today’s post.

(Note 1: We are talking about early 17th century here. It may very well be that operas were performed in territories other than Italy or Poland before 1628 – we may simply not know about it because no documents survive. That Polish premiere, however, is the oldest one that we can be certain of.)

(Note 2: “Polish baroque music” is probably a bit of a misnomer as a category for this post – the early 1600s weren’t really baroque times in Polish music yet, neither was any of the composers listed above Polish – except for Moniuszko, of course. Be that as it may – that’s the category I’m keeping. 😉 )

Categories: Polish opera
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