Hagith op. 25 (1912-1913)

Szymanowski made the decision to compose an opera in 1912, during his stay in Vienna, where he spent many evenings at the Vienna Opera house and at Viennese theatres. He hoped an opera would bring him “a career and an increased income”, as he said in his letters. He set to work on a one-act libretto by Felix Dörmann (1877-1928), dramatist and poet from the Viennese Art Nouveau movement, without much enthusiasm. He was then under the influence of the works of Richard Strauss, and was afraid of falling into the trap of “Straussian mannerism” – all the more so as the subject of Hagith, like Salome, was taken from Biblical narratives. On the other hand, he did expect that by remaining within the circle of influence of the fashionable Strauss he would clear the way for his Hagith onto the stage of Viennese Opera. For a novice in this area, writing an opera turned out to be an arduous and time-consuming task. Between July and December 1912, at Tymoszówka, he sketched out a plan of the whole, adapted to the German text by Dörmann. In October 1913, in spite of numerous travels undertaken during that time, he finished the score. Letters sent to friends in that period show how often he lost his patience, complained, got bored over Hagith, and how the work, being composed in a state of excitement, evoked in turn his admiration and his contempt.
The contract signed by the composer with the Viennese publisher Universal Edition, as it happens, precisely in 1912, did not include the stage works. However, it did give the publisher the right of first refusal, and Szymanowski succeeded in interesting his editors in the project. The first few months of 1914 saw feverish preparation of performance materials: the piano score, orchestral voices, translation of text into Polish. All this had to be checked many times to prevent errors in notation. A search for an opera theatre willing to take on the effort of staging the first performance was undertaken throughout Europe. But then – war broke out.
In the end, Hagith was staged on 13 May 1922 by the Warsaw Opera. The dazzling scenery of heavy, shadowy forms in colours of red and gold, was designed by Wincenty Drabik. The title role was sung by an excellent artist, Maria Mokrzycka. The director of the Opera was then Emil Młynarski who was keen to promote new works by Polish composers, and he undertook the musical direction of the premiere. During rehearsals he was assisted by Artur Rodziński (later conductor and director of some of the top American orchestras). Szymanowski was also present during rehearsals, and amended the enormous score on the spot. The fact that the two main parts were written for tenor voices presented a challenge for the performance. Fortunately, Warsaw Opera at that time had suitable soloists among its company. These were the forty-year old Ignacy Dygas, and the ten years younger Stanisław Gruszczyński. In accordance with the age difference, they sang the parts of the Old King and Young King. Szymanowski thus entrusted the acting out of the conflict between rulers over a crown and over a woman to high, strong voices. The dramatic soprano of the title part harmonised well with the two tenors. The Doctor and the Archpriest (baritone and bass) are secondary characters, but their roles are important for the drama and for the sound texture.
The story of a girl who is selected to restore strength to a King weakening with age through the sacrifice of her virginity and her life here lost its references to the Biblical King David and the conflict with his sons. Dörmann’s libretto was based on his own theatre play, which combined a climate of decadence with psychological realism. In the opera, the Old King does not trust the Doctor, and rejects the son who is already anointed as the new ruler. He wants to continue living and being the ruler. He awaits Hagith’s arrival impatiently, expecting her to heal him. The girl arrives at the palace thinking that she is being called by the Young King. She has loved him for a long time, and he, captivated by her beauty and devotion, begins to fall in love with her. However, the Priest directs Hagith to the bed of the Old King. The latter tries to entice her, then threatens and tempts her – Hagith refuses; she begs him to give up the crown and face his end with dignity (singing “Come to our mountains…”). The old man, enraged, tries to take her by force, and the girl heaps a string of insults on him. The King pushes her away; he feels that he is returning to life by himself, blood pulses through his veins. At that point he falls down dead. Hagith, accused of opposing the ruler, is stoned to death by the fanatical crowd. All that is left for the Young King is despair. Szymanowski depicted the extreme emotional states of his characters in music which is full of expression. Apart from the lyrical love duet of Hagith and the Young King, the intensity of the passionate, neurotic tone never weakens. One is also aware of the composer’s sound theatrical instinct. Apart from the singing, often ecstatic, at the limit of vocal registers, Szymanowski uses parlando. In two key moments in the plot he introduces a chorus in order to intensify tension. The dialogue of the two Kings, where the love of a son does not allow the Young King to oppose his father, is contrasted in a magnificently written later scene between the Old King and Hagith, where the girl’s love for the Young King gives her courage to resist and face death. In the orchestral layer one can distinguish the recurring motifs of power (action), fear, and the soft, tertian Hagith motif. This tissue of motifs, the degree of emotional saturation of the music, the choice of instrumentation with extended brass, the wide scale of the dynamics, the drastic storyline and the heroine’s tragedy, allow one to classify Szymanowski’s work as an expressionist musical drama, something extemely rare in Polish opera literature.
After the premiere in Warsaw, Hagith was staged at Darmstadt (1923), and then in Bytom (1962) and in Kraków (1964), where it was adapted by Kazimierz Kord with a new text by Anna Świrszczyńska. This was because quite a few directors were put off by the artificial and irritating, artificially emotional language of the Polish version of the libretto, written by the Lvov poet Stanisław Barącz. Universal Edition published the piano score of Hagith (1920), but its full score has not been published until this day. Neither has there so far been a recording of the opera. Recently (2006) Hagith was given a very felicitous dramatic and musical shape by Wrocław Opera.