Between Music and History – The Fate of a Musical Masterpiece


Today we celebrate the birthday of one of the most important and poignant artists, musicians, Romanian creators – Ciprian Porumbescu. This year marks the 169 anniversary of this event. My belief is that we should think of him as being the first real Romanian classical music composer. Even though his lifespan was a short one (he lived for only 29 years) and his compositions are very few, Ciprian Porumbescu managed to become an important name in the Romanian music history (and, thus, should also be included in the European music history) through his compositions which, even though they have Viennese musical influences of their time (after all, he was a student of the Vienna Conservatoire of Music) also contain deep and powerful roots within the Romanian musical folklore. This can be easily observed in compositions such as The Romanian Balad for violin and orchestra op. 29, The Romanian Rhapsody and, last but not least, his masterpiece for the stage (and the only one of its kind worth mentioning in his whole composition inventory), the operetta Crai nou (the best English translation would be The Crescent Moon). I have to admit that even since hearing these creations for the first time, I have been fascinated by the mourning sound of the violin in his Balad, this doina for the named solo instrument and orchestra, a sound which has brough and still brings tears to all listeners; I also cannot forget the joy I felt when I first heard the music from his operetta, Crai nou (an adaptation and reorchestration of the original content, as it was usually and unfortunately done with this masterpiece and as will be shown in this article), a composition which exceptionally combines the Viennese musical tradition from the 19th century with the powerful Romanian influences; last, but not least, The Romanian Rhapsody for orchestra reminded me each time I heard it – from the first chords, all the way through the sumptuousness of the sound – of the great symphonies of Anton Bruckner, who was Ciprian Porumbescu’s teacher at the Viennese Conservatoire, but also of the music from the native region where the young composer was born and lived: the sweet province of Bucovina, with its dances, popular folklore games and with its cânticele (the most appropriate translation would be short songs), as Vasile Alecsandri, one of our great drama writers, said. So, there it is – a short first view of Porumbescu, the man and the composer, something that will help me put in historical and artistic context the show Crai nou which took place at the Bucharest National Opera.

The stage performance was created by the Romanian director, Răzvan Ioan Dincă. Some (too) conservative members of the audience might know him as the artist who sometimes made some uncomfortable and too modern adaptions of classical musical creations for the stage (such as The Gypsy Baron and The Bat, both by Johann Strauss, both produced by the National Operetta and Musical Theatre “Ion Dacian” in Bucharest). Even now, speaking of his staged version of Porumbescu’s operetta, we cannot say that it’s a classical one. However, his understanding of the composer’s music and of Vasile Alecsandri’s text has brought forth thinks which seemed buried deep within Crai nou, such as the fact that its story can be viable in any place and time, underlining the universality of this work. I think that this is exactly what makes this show at the Bucharest opera house so important, both musically and as a stage production. Moreover, another one of its important aspects is that the director’s, the conductor’s, the general manager’s and all the participating artists’ wish was to promote as much as can be Ciprian Porumbescu’s music, as well as the Romanian musical work repertory, as these have been seldomly seen on our stages as of late. Nonetheless, there will be those who will criticize this production, maintaining the idea that the show has nothing in common with the original creation. They may seem to be right in their affirmations. However, I think that one must welcome this show with an open heart and mind in order to fully grasp its importance and impact.

First and foremost, the music of Ciprian Porumbescu exists in its original form. Moreover, Daniel Jinga, the conductor and also the General Manager of the Bucharest National Opera, as well as the initiator of this cultural project, managed to present to the audience the original version of the original manuscript found in the archives of the Romanian School of Brasov by Corina Ciuplea, an exceptional music editor and engraver. Also, the characters created by the librettist, Vasile Alecsandri, are there, in their entirety and personality depth, with their original names, as in the original written work. Thus, there can be no doubt whatsoever that we had a first-hand and quite original experience of the operetta Crai nou. Let’s not forget that contemporary opera and operetta productions can be somewhat estranged from the initial work of the composer. Let’s just say I’ve seen a lot worse and I can definitely say that the show directed by Răzvan Ioan Dincă stays true to the ideas of the creators, changing only the time frame of the story.

The first part of the show took us back to the time when the Habsburg Empire ruled over some of these parts of Europe, including Bucovina and the hometown of Ciprian Porumbescu. This is where he was born, where he lived and fought for a better life for the Romanians and for maintaining their identity and culture intact from the Austrian influence. This is what led to his imprisonment in 1878 at the Cernăuți prison, alongside the leaders of the Arboroasa student association. It was for this reason that the director has chosen this point in Romanian history in order to place his version in the desired and correct context. Once the curtain was up, the audience was awed at the elegance of the ballet dancers of the Bucharest National Opera waltzing gracefully along the width of the impressive stage sets. This is the moment where one could have recognized the fate of the young Romanians who were taken to arms in wars that they didn’t belong in and fighting fights which weren’t theirs to fight. And, of course, the fate of the young Romanian lasses who had to remain at home, waiting for their loved ones to return from the battlefields (if ever the managed to return…). This is also the case and story of Bujor, a lad who is already in the army, and Dochița, a beautiful girl who is still hoping that her beau will return as soon as possible. The soprano Oana Șerbanwas the one who became one with her character, her sweet voice showing clarity while taking the highest notes and with a very delicate tone which managed to underline Dochița’s contradictory feelings and her complex personality. She also showed that she is a great and convincing actress, being quite natural in her acting. Alongside, we admired the baritone Alexandru Constantin, who was a very charming and manly soldier as Bujor, Dochița’s lover. His manly and impressive stature and his acting talent also helped in portraying this powerful character. He demonstrated a very elevated sense of humor in the bacchic scene, which Ciprian Porumbescu so masterfully composed.

The first act of Crai nou also contains the love story between Leonaș and Anica, the stepdaughter of the Ispravnic (an important political position in 19th century urban and rural Romania, something like an administrator of sorts), who also loves and wants her as his wife and who is the only villain of the operetta. Andrei Petre and Daniela Cârstea were chosen to portray the young, enamored couple. And a very charming and smart choice that was, as the two represented the ideal picture of love, as created by the librettist. The powerful tenor voice of Andrei Petre, with clear and flaming high notes but also with the sweetness requested by the doina style of singing made me think that the young artist was very near to an interpretation which Ciprian Porumbescu himself would have admired. The same thing which can be said about Daniela Cârstea, the soprano who was Anica, Leonaș’s lover. She is an ideal ingenue singer and actress (and more than that) whom I have admired and appreciated from the first time I ever heard and saw her. In this production of Crai nou she again demonstrated her vocal abilities and agilities, underlining the fragility and innocence of the character. Alongside this couple, there are two other characters, the “mature” ones in the work – Moș Corbul (a name which would translate as Old Man Corbul) and the Ispravnic (the administrator previously mentioned, Anica’s stepfather). Ion Dimieru appeared on the stage as Moș Corbul, with his impressive deep voice and tone, bringing forward his wise, yet cunning personality in helping the young lovers escape the villain’s grasp. The bass-baritone once again demonstrates that he is an important soloist and asset of the Bucharest opera house. As the Ispravnic, the bass Radu Ion was convincing in his scenes which were characterized by his unsatiable lust both for Anica and Dochița and his pathological wrath pointed at the young Leonaș.

And because I have just discussed the role of the Ispravnic, I have to mention that his appearances were more impactful and poignant during the second half of the show, the one which the director Răzvan Ioan Dincă imagined as taking place during the communist-Ceaușescu era, underlining even more the universality in time and space of Ciprian Porumbescu’s work, while also exposing the totalitarian figure of and idea behind the figure of the Ispravnic. Why would such a classical operetta be placed within such a recent timeframe and place? It’s that easy – besides the fact that the story of Crai nou can be found in any era and location, one must not forget that the music, the rhythms created by the composer were wrongfully used as a propaganda means during Ceaușescu’s “reign”. You may consider this as yet another unmasking of that regime’s hideous methods. By bringing on to the stage costumes from that period, by presenting the audience with images of some of the greatest Russian and Romanian communist leaders, as well as projecting images of the public manifestations during which the leaders were praised and which formed the usual “cultural” activities of the masses, the director reminds us that things like communism and other totalitarian regimes must never be forgotten. The lighting design, the costumes and sets created by Adrian Damian fully contributed to the historical context and portrayal of those not-so-long-ago time, also ensuring that the idea and message behind this production correctly reaches the audience’s minds and hearts. One mustn’t forget the exceptional performance of the Bucharest National Opera Orchestra and Chorus, conducted by the firm, yet delicate hand and baton of maestro Daniel Jinga.

In the end, these are a few of the reasons which make the production of the operetta Crai nou a culturally, socially and even politically important event of the year and which must be seen by as many people as possible. As the composer himself wished on his deathbed, while in the arms of his sister, Mărioara, we must never let his music and compositions die and fade away into oblivion. We also mustn’t ever compare Ciprian Porumbescu’s works with those of George Enescu. That would be quite wrong, as the two lived during completely different historical and musical periods. The both of them should hold places one as important as the other in the Romanian music history. Last, but not least, I think that the public always forgets the text of this stage work, written by our great dramatist, Vasile Alecsandri, one who knew so well to transfer the beauty of the Romanian character, its spirit and authenticity, alongside with our myths from imagery and feeling directly to words. Crai nou is a depiction of these characteristic of Alecsandri’s poetic and dramatic work, its story being influenced by the Wallachian legend of the crai nou (the Crescent Moon), which helps and protects young lover from any harm. This, along with Porumbescu’s beautiful music, which is infused with charming Viennese waltzes and typical classical operetta duets, but also with the folklore dances and songs from the sweet land of Bucovina, the homeland of Ciprian Porumbescu, our great composer.