Budapest Concert and Opera Report: March 29 - April 8

Various artists and venues

11 April 2011

Budapest

Musical offerings in Budapest are plentiful and usually of good standard. Thus I opted to attend nine events during my eleven-day stay there.

Significantly, some of the performances were given by companies and ensembles from Hungarian cities and towns other than Budapest.

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Tuesday, 29th March, Budapest Spring Festival
Liszt: Christus; staged performance by the Csokonai Theatre, Debrecen
Palace of Arts, Festival Theatre

Although planned and started 13 years earlier, Liszt completed his monumental oratorio in 1866. However, it was premiered only in 1873, conducted by the composer. The oratorio is divided into three main parts (Christmas Oratorio, After Epiphany, Passion and Resurrection) and subdivided into fourteen movements. The text includes biblical lines from Esaias, Luke, Matthew and Mark. It is scored for solo voices (baritone, soprano, mezzo soprano, tenor and bass), large chorus, organ and full orchestra. On this occasion, the considerable forces were enlarged further as the Csokonai Theatre of Debrecen has presented a fully staged performance of Liszt's grand oratorio.

The staging was inventive, informative, tasteful and frugal without impoverished. Throughout the performance three video screens contributed various images. For instance, during the orchestral introduction to Part One, we saw paintings of ancient musical instruments, such as rebecs and various wind instruments, and also musicians. At other times the text was shown in two languages (Latin and Hungarian) while the third video screen would project paintings of relevance. The video images were always connected to the music or text but they were also of artistic value in themselves. The sets must have been the simplest I have ever seen but nonetheless they were very effective, well utilised and wholly appropriate to the subject. A curtain was folded as if it was baby Jesus rocking on the arm. Simple wooden logs served a variety of functions (including the building of Mary's home or carrying the cross). Animals in paintings projected on the video screens were matched by live fish in aquariums on the stage. Candles brought to the stage in procession at the appropriate musical and textual moments were highly effective. The costumes worn by actors and dancers were understated and meaningful. Seeing such economical but wholly appropriate design, I could not help thinking that true art can survive even in the face of financial restrictions.

The choreography, which involved intensive mime as well as dancing, intensified and supported the story telling and, most importantly, the music. Not a single movement was superfluous. The chorus delighted with sensitive phrasing throughout; their Amen chorus concluding 'The Beatitudes' (sixth movement) was magical. Unfortunately the baritone solo preceding the Amen chorus was slightly shaky but the whole performance of the oratorio seemed to ooze communality rather than individualism. Nevertheless, the solo quartet in the Stabat Mater (twelfth movement) demonstrated the strength of the vocal soloists. The quality of instruments in the (Debrecen Philharmonic) orchestra seems to be poorer than what I am used to, for instance, in London orchestras. But, ironically, the quality of the Debrecen instruments actually contributed to the humble and pious images of the staging.

Three choruses participated in the magnificent combined chorus: the Csokonay Theatre Choir, the Debrecen Kodály Choir and the Júlia Bányai Primary School Children's Choir. The co-operation and contributions of many individuals were inherent in the production, nevertheless we should single out conductor Balázs Kocsár, director Attila Mispál, choreographer Péter Gemza, set designer György Bátonyi and costume designer Katalin Libor. They have brought Liszt's oratorio alive.

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Wednesday, 30th March, Budapest Spring Festival
Szokolay 80; Concert on the composer's birthday
Inner City St Michael's Church

Three of the five works performed at this deeply moving celebration of the composer's 80th birthday (on 30th March) were world premiers, written for this occasion. Not bad for a man of 80! Inspiration comes from God – Sándor Szokolay is a deeply religious man – but surely also from the performers, in particular from mezzo soprano Mária Horváth and conductor János Dobra (whose artistic contribution was essential in arranging this concert). Horváth and Dobra (with his Tomkins Vocal Ensemble) have been championing Szokolay's works for the past quarter of century. They do so not only with dedication but also with admirable skills. It is, therefore, no coincidence that Szokolay dedicated The Lady of Prayer (a spiritual fantasia for mezzo soprano solo, mixed choir, string octet and organ), op. 207 to Mária Horváth and the Tomkins Vocal Ensemble.

Szokolay is highly regarded within as well as outside Hungary. According to stage director Balázs Kovalik, after Bartók's Bluebeard's Castle it is Szokolay's Blood Wedding, op. 19, which is the most frequently performed Hungarian opera in Europe's opera houses.

Szokolay has not run out of steam since his op. 19, although he appears to have changed direction. Since 1994 he has been living and composing in Sopron (near the Austrian border with Hungary) and for the past fifteen years he has devoted a whole series of works to silent prayer, thoughts of peace and gratitude. Numbering more than eighty such works, the words Prayer, Hymn, Praise or Meditation recur in the titles of many of his works.

In the first of the three pieces premiered at this birthday concert, Szokolay turns God's Love in the Redemption into a hymn. The Chamber Cantata on the Love of God – for mezzo soprano and baritone solos, mixed choir, string octet and organ, op. 206 – climaxes in the third movement with the words of John the Evangelist ('for God so loved the world…'). Dedicated to mezzo soprano Mária Horváth, baritone Ákos Ambrus, the Tomkins Vocal Ensemble and the Ars Longa Chamber Orchestra, their combined performance set the tone for the high standard throughout the evening. The Lady of Prayer contained another birthday within Szokolay's birthday celebration. He composed his music to a poem – celebrating the birthday of Zsuzsanna Erdélyi (a collector of folk prayers) – by Menyhért Tamás. Szokolay found the poem in January 2011 and set it to music within a few days. The third piece receiving its world premiere, Aaron's Blessing (a hymn for baritone solo, string octet and organ), op. 208, is dedicated to baritone Ákos Ambrus. The text lines come from the Book of Numbers in the Old Testament (May the Lord bless you and preserve you,…). These three works receiving their world premiere are linked not only by their devotional Hungarian texts but also by their instrumentation, thus they form a musical unit.

The first two world premieres were conducted by the composer – the third by Dobra – although musical preparation of soloists, chorus and orchestra by Dobra was of essence. It is a credit to Dobra that the performers understood and delivered Szokolay's musical language. Both soloists, Mária Horváth and Ákos Ambrus, excelled. With her more substantial material Horváth particularly impressed. Looking the part (of the devote lady), she was rock solid both vocally as well as musically and embodied Szokolay's text and music.

Musica Transylvanica, 13 variations for organ, op. 104 is based on a sixteen-syllable prayer-like folk text which Szokolay set in the pentatonic mode. The keyboard of the organ was placed on level with all other performers but the sound, ably produced by organist Miklós Teleki, came from the organ pipes high above. The concert concluded with Missa Pannonica, op. 96, which was dedicated to János Dobra and the Tomkins Vocal Ensemble and was premiered by them in 1987. Scored for 12 unaccompanied voices – divided into soprano, mezzo soprano, alto, tenor, baritone and bass – the performance, conducted by Dobra, impressed not only by its musicality but also by the ensemble's ability to keep their pitches throughout the complicated unaccompanied polyphony.

As seen in this remarkable 80th birthday concert, the composer's faith in God and János Dobra has proved to be justified.

*

Thursday, 31st March, Budapest Spring Festival
Éva Bátori (voice) and György Selmeczi (piano)
Kogart House

Budapest This song recital included one world premiere, works by two other contemporary composers as well as songs by Liszt and Bartók. Liszt was the only non-Hungarian composer in the programme but I hasten to add that not only was Liszt born in Hungary but he declared himself Hungarian and spent many of his later years in Budapest. (Bartók wrote that, notwithstanding Liszt's non-Hungarian parents, if Liszt said he was Hungarian then he was Hungarian.). It is hard to tell if the experienced and highly rated opera singer Éva Bátori was nervous in the first two groups of songs or if she does not have affinity with Liszt and Bartók. Her formidable voice was rock solid (with the exception of a few underpitched top notes), but nuances were thin or non-existent. Admittedly I sat in the front row, about two meters from the singer, and maybe because of my close proximity I heard only three grades of dynamics: loud, louder and loudest. But the music came to life in the works by Petrovics, Selmeczi and Orbán. If one did not have texts for the Liszt songs, one could have assumed that all seven songs dealt with the same topic. Yet, in spite of some similarities, there is a variety of meanings in Du bist wie eine Blume, Die stille Wasserrose, Wie singt die Lerche schön, Ich liebe dich, Schwebe, schwebe, blaues Auge, In Liebeslust and Wo weilt er? On the other hand, the texts for Bartók's Five Songs, op. 15 are dreary without any particularly artistic merit. The world premiere of the evening was the Shakespeare Songbook, a cycle of six songs composed to texts from various Shakespeare plays, by Emil Petrovics. The Willow Song is from Othello, the Fool's Ditty from King Lear, Ophelia's Lament from Hamlet, Chanticleer's Ditty and Ting-a-ling Death Knell from The Tempest and the Wintry Farewell from the Winter's Tale. Petrovich wrote and dedicated the cycle to Éva Bátori in the autumn of 2010. He composed to Hungarian translations – thus Bátori sang in Hungarian – but Shakespeare's original words also fit the music. Bátori delivered the songs with assurance and great theatrical style, her performance was artistic and enjoyable. The same standard was maintained in György Selmeczi's Minutes volantes (i-iv) – with the composer at the piano as throughout the evening – and during György Orbán's Nine Transylvanian Madrigals, which the composer dedicated to Bátori (and Emese Virág) and which was premiered in 2007. Composers Petrovics, Selmeczi and Orbán were clearly pleased with Bátori's rendering of their works and so was the appreciative audience.

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Friday, 1st April, Budapest Spring Festival
Hear the Word – Music and Dance for the 30th Dance House Gathering
Palace of Arts, Béla Bartók National Concert Hall

Hungary's dance house movement is a unique form of the rebirth of folk music. It emerged as an urban youth movement in the 1970s and 1980s. Although several prominent intellectuals – such as the distinguished folk dance researcher György Martin (1932-1983) – had leading roles in this revival movement, initially it was deemed by many as doomed. However, in the country of Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály, ethnomusicology and dance study have provided a scholarly background and, evidently, have fuelled this folkloristic movement. Young people engaged in relearning the technique and the style of dance and music from probably the last genuine peasant performers. Then – in turn – they cultivated, spread and taught the style.

Forty years on the movement is strong and flourishing. Each year there is gala concert, which brings together many groups from all over the country. This was the 30th annual meeting and it presented a fascinating cross-section of well-known professional performers, amateur groups, old troupers and young children. Individual numbers were seamlessly linked either with appropriate short talks by veterans and leading personalities of the movement or with documentary film clips from the initial stages. The stage was darkened during these short interludes, thus various groups were able to enter and exit without breaking the continuity. The first half of the evening was given to music (although 'Batyu' Zoltán Farkas contributed a solo dance routine to Márta Sebestyén's performance) and the second half was dedicated to dance (although some of the dance routines were introduced or accompanied by the powerful singing of the dancers). Each half of the programme was stage directed as if it was a continuous act of theatre piece; both halves climaxed in exciting and moving finales. The second finale included all participating musicians as well as dancers on stage and – after presenting old dancers in amazingly virtuoso solo spots (how can old people move their limbs with such energy?!) – it concluded with focusing on young children's energetic folk dancing. The future appears to be assured and I am certain that Bartók and Kodály would approve.

Participating musicians included the Muzsikás Ensemble, Ferenc Sebő (one of the pioneers of the movement from some forty years ago) with his folk music students from the Liszt Academy of Music, virtuoso cimbalom player Kálmán Balogh, Márta Sebestyén, Dűvő Ensemble, Vujicsics Ensemble, Csík Orchestra, Szalonna Band, Szilvási Gipsy Band and Béla Halmos (another pioneer of the movement). Participating dancers included the Százszorszép Dance Ensemble (of Martonvásár), Nógrád Dance Ensemble (of Salgótarján), Corvinus Folk Dance Ensemble (of Budapest), Gödöllő Dance Ensemble and Szentendre Dance Ensemble. Content and staging were arranged by Péter Árendás, 'Batyu' Zoltán Farkas and László Diószegi.

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Saturday, 2nd April, Budapest Opera House
Tchaikovsky: Eugene Onegin

Colour seems to be an important tool in stage director Balázs Kovalik's interpretation of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin. The reason for the various colours is not necessarily obvious, thus the production is thought provoking already on what could be regarded as surface matter. The large sloping revolving stage on the top of the actual stage is covered with green in the first act, with red in the second and with white in the third. White window frames hang in the air, sometimes gently rocking (Tatyana and Olga sing their opening duet swinging in the window frames) while other times closing as a gate (when Onegin rejects Tatyana). Chorus members wear green in the first act, red in the second and gold in the third. Individual characters are clothed in red (Lensky, Olga, Larina and the nurse Filippyevna), white (Onegin, Tatyana in the first act, and a group of people reading books in the opening scene) and black (a group of people participating in the action by circling around individuals and by carrying or throwing away black roses). All colours are sharply defined, although lighting varies them from time to time. I confess to not being sure why Onegin is white throughout and I am baffled by the bright red for the nurse. On the other hand, Tatyana's white in the first act, grey in the second and black in the third might be regarded as self-explanatory.

In Kovalik's take of Tatyana's letter scene, Tatyana has an erotic dream in which Onegin appears on stage and lovingly participates. This is so moving and understandable that one wonders why other productions do not use this device. Another change from the norm is the duel scene. Kovalik makes it more like a suicide by the romantic poet than a duel. Lensky gently takes the revolver from Onegin's pocket, places it into Onegin's hand, raises his own hands without any revolver and Onegin, evidently not realising that Lensky is unarmed behind him, shoots and kills his friend. Thus the tragedy is sharpened, as seen by Onegin's distraught state while hugging his dead friend. Kovalik's psychological take is convincing but it makes the two aids to the duel redundant (although they are written in the libretto and are seen on stage).

Conductor János Kovács appears to adjust to Kovalik's staging. The horn statement in Tatyana's rejection hits painfully, the gold choral sections (in the third act) are radiant. But above all, Kovács knows and loves the score, and he supports and directs with musicality and wisdom.

The singers are excellent, there is no weakling. It is very difficult to portray the role of Onegin which needs a singer with strong stage presence. András Káldi Kiss looks good and sounds good but appears to lack the charisma needed for this difficult role. Zoltán Nyári is fully convincing as the romantic poet Lensky, Erika Gál is a charming Olga and Tivadar Kiss is deeply moving as Triquet. I cannot understand Annamária Kovács's portrayal of the nurse Filippyevna. Admittedly there is supposed to be a strong bond between Tatyana and her nurse but why to make her so young and sexually provocative? It contradicts the text which Filippyevna is singing. Éva Bátori is innocent, passionate and majestic during the various stages of Tatyana's progress; hers is a magnificent performance. With a performance like hers one wonders (even more) why Pushkin's novel and Tchaikovsky's opera are not titled Tatyana?

*

Tuesday, 5th April, Széchényi Academy of Literature and Arts
Zoltán Kocsis inaugural lecture recital
Great Hall, Hungarian Academy of Sciences

Zoltαn Kocsis It seems that in some ways the Széchényi Academy of Literature and Arts is similar to the British Academy. Pianist, conductor and composer Zoltán Kocsis has been made a member and his inaugural lecture recital – linked to the annual Széchényi speech day – marked his formal award as well as his acceptance. Initially the all-Schubert programme seemed a strange choice: Kocsis is among the best Bartók interpreters, a champion of contemporary music and, at last but not least, the Széchényi Academy of Literature and Arts pays homage specifically to the great Hungarian statesman István Széchényi (1791 – 1860) with these annual celebrations. Arguably, a Hungarian orientated recital programme might have been more appropriate. However, in the event, Kocsis's Schubert interpretation was revelatory, thus his choice was justified.

If one is familiar, for instance, with Radu Lupu's Schubert interpretations, it takes a while to get used to Kocsis's approach. Equally, Kocsis seemed to have taken a while to reach his own ultimate vision during this recital. I hasten to add that right from the first note we experienced great art. But in the first half of the programme (Four Impromptus, op. 90 D 899 and Three Piano Pieces, D 946) the percussive element of the piano was more evident than in the second half when Kocsis not only explored but also created the inner depths of the great posthumous D 960 sonata.

In the first Impromptu Kocsis opted for a large orchestral canvas with a passionate, rather than a lyrical, approach. There was no doubt about the harmonic structure in the second and third Impromptus; the tonic-subdominant-dominant-tonic function of the bass echoed as if played by a whole orchestra section. The fourth Impromptu, appropriately driven, reminded of Schumann or Brahms (or even of 'Sturm und Drang'): it is of note that in his verbal presentation Kocsis compared Schubert to Bruckner. In the first of the three D 946 pieces (in E-flat minor) the percussive elements were balanced by the hymn-like rendering of the slow section. The second piece (in E-flat major) revealed Schubert the song writer but also Kocsis' evident orchestral thinking. Surprisingly, Kocsis stated that the third piece (in C major) was an example for marvellous music even without melodies but this pair of ears spotted melodic fragments there too. After the interval, in the D 960 sonata, Kocsis relaxed into creating and exploring, communicating with Schubert and savouring Schubert's harmonic world. Here Kocsis created a great number of colours and tonal shades, his agogics (rubato within the bar) felt heavenly: I for one was in Heaven during this performance. But it seems that so was the rest of the spellbound audience who demanded an encore even after such a long evening packed with speeches before the actual recital. Kocsis obliged with the repeat of the E-flat minor piece from D 946 but this time performing it with both trios, the second of which Schubert crossed out. Sadly I had to leave before this encore, thus probably missing out on further revelations into Schubert.

*

Wednesday, 6th April, Budapest Spring Festival and Budapest Opera House
Excelsior! – Ferenc Liszt Goes to Heaven
Thália Theatre

Categorised by the authors as a 'semi-serious opera in two acts', the piece received its world premier on 18th March 2011. The opera's plot is built around Ferenc Liszt's planned wedding to Princess Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein and – as a result of intrigues – the Pope's decision against it. Being disillusioned, Liszt undergoes a spiritual change: he is ordained and becomes an abbot.

András Papp's Hungarian libretto deals with Liszt the man, not with Liszt the musician. Nevertheless, in composer Gyula Fekete's immediately digestible score the quotes from the music of Liszt and Wagner are numerous. The compilation and substantial addition of original music seem to amount to what could be described as top class musical or operetta material. Easy on the ear but never substandard, such an opera score could be an excellent tool for attracting new audiences to the world of opera. However, it remains to be seen if the score can deliver with lesser singers than those whom I heard, that is with Fekete's chosen cast. Of the all round excellent team two singers stood out, partly because of the multiple opportunities in their roles. Mezzo soprano Viktória Mester played Princess Carolyne but, in one scene, also several other characters. The changes from character to character are fast, just about allowing a quick costume change off stage. Mester changed her role profiles in a masterly fashion – the word 'mester' actually means master in Hungarian – portraying them with warmth, humour and even with some dance routine as required. All the while her velvety mezzo voice radiated. Tenor Tivadar Kiss (Spiridion) looked like a dancer or acrobat on his first entry: he appeared by means of doing several cartwheels and somersaults. Then he proceeded with some excellent singing, demonstrating a strong sense of rhythm and humour. Together with his deeply moving performance as Triquet in Eugene Onegin (2n April), young Tivadar Kiss appears to be an all rounder. Alto Annamária Kovács (Cardinal Hohenlohe) was entirely convincing as the evil and manipulating representative of the clergy. Her vocal and musical delivery was excellent (as also in the role of Filippyevna in Eugene Onegin). I am not certain what the character of Richard Wagner was supposed to be in the context of the opera's plot but baritone András Káldi Kiss left me with the same impression as after his portrayal of Onegin: a good looking, solid and reliable singer without getting under the skin of his role. Tenor Attila Fekete was strong as the young Liszt – there is a speaking role for the reminiscing old Liszt – and countertenor Gábor Birta (Pope Pius IX) made a good foil to Kovács's Cardinal Hohenlohe.

The staging (including the set design) by Péter Gothár is innovative. There is no stage. The orchestra sits where normally there is a stage, the audience is arranged around them and the action takes place on a rather narrow corridor between orchestra and the audience. A slightly slanted large mirror is placed over the orchestra, allowing double images of some of the players but also of the singers (who walk round the corridor during the whole performance). Conductor Gergely Kesselyák was visible (as himself and his mirror image) and passionate. He appeared to be singing all the words and treated the score with the seriousness which is due to all good music (of whatever genre).

*

Thursday, 7th April, Budapest Opera House
The Taming of the Shrew
Ballet by László Seregi

Most probably László Seregi is to Hungary what Sir Frederick Ashton was to England: a great, inventive choreographer who treats the music as fundamental to ballet. Both of these giants started from music, knew their music intimately and have created the visual embodiment of their music on stage. They also told their stories – when they worked with dramatic plots rather than with pure ballet – with clarity, humour and with inventive use of props. Fortunately Seregi, who created his first choreography in 1952 and joined the ballet company of the Budapest Opera House in 1957, is still active in the company.

Seregi's version of Shakespeare's play is true to the spirit and, in essence, to the story line. Premiered in 1994, the work appears fresh and full of energy. The sets (by Attila Csikós) and costumes (by Nelly Vágó) are conventional (rather than psychological), convincing and beautiful. We seem to be really in London and Padua of the 16th or 17th century.

For The Taming of the Shrew Seregi opted for the music of Károly Goldmark (1830-1915), composer of the opera The Queen of Shaba (and many other works), and he selected music from a variety of Goldmark's compositions. Seregi's selection was compiled and partially orchestrated by Frigyes Hidas. Judging by one hearing, the music is seamless: one would not know that the music was not conceived as a whole. The orchestra played with total commitment, as if they played opera. (Sadly, such approach cannot be taken for granted in opera houses.) This orchestral commitment and the sheer musicality of the performance is a credit to conductor Valéria Csányi, whose tempi felt right for the music and were clearly appropriate for the dancers. An oboe solo near the beginning of the ballet and a cello solo later on were notable by their excellent qualities. However, the solo harp did not fare so well: during the harp solos the curtains were down (to facilitate scene changes) and the largely international audience treated these harp interludes as time for conversations.

The musicality of the dancers was gratifying. The virtuosity and energy of Anna Tsygankova (Katherine) is mind blowing while Levente Bajár (Petruchio) as well as Ildikó Boros (Bianca) particularly impressed. Composer Goldmark and choreographer Seregi were well served.

*

Friday, 8th April, Budapest Opera House
Ferenc Erkel: Bánk bán

I am not certain if, by this opera performance, I was a bit tired or if the performers themselves were either tired or only partially up to the task. An English lady from Leeds, apparently a regular at Opera North performances, remarked in the second interval that this opera was static. (No, the opera itself is not static!) On the other hand, another English lady (from London) was hugely enthusiastic and heaped praises on one of the principal singers who was – in my view – the least satisfactory of all singers.

Erkel (1810 – 1893) composed the Hungarian national anthem and, more importantly, he created the genre of Hungarian national opera. His compositional style is nearest to German romanticism but he mixed in Hungarian elements and his librettos tackle Hungarian topics. Bánk bán is probably Erkel's best known opera among Hungarians, partly because Béni Egressy's libretto is based on an important historic play of the same title by József Katona. Premiered in 1861, the opera underwent drastic changes by Kálmán Nádasdy and Nándor Rékai in 1940: this changed version has stayed in repertory of the Budapest Opera House for the past 70 years. The original version was performed in a concert performance in November 2010 but the staged performances still use the Nádasdy-Rékai version.

I had no problems with the traditional set design, costumes and stage directions. Indeed, as an ex-pat Hungarian, I was looking forward to them. But I was surprised by the acting style of far too many singers who just stood and delivered their vocal lines without visible (and, at times, audible) dramatic involvement. Under the circumstances, some of their stock gestures (of raising an arm or similar) were more irritating than illuminating. From my point of view only two of the singers delivered vocally, musically and dramatically: tenor Zoltán Nyári (Otto) and baritone János Tóth (Tiborc). There are two orchestral members who also merit special praises: Viktoria Herencsár's cimbalom playing provided exciting musical drama while principal viola Veronika Botos amazed by exchanging her viola for the viola d'amore and calmly delivering her solo on stage (as if participating in the plot) in the second act. Indeed, her solo continued in front of the lowered curtains while some scene change was implemented. It is of note that before and after her viola d'amore solo Botos was playing principal viola for the performance. I for one regard this skill as a notable achievement.

My verdict on my Budapest trip? I would not have missed it for anything. Not as a Hungarian but as a musician who will treasure some of the great musical experiences for a long time.

By Agnes Kory

Photos: Budapest Opera House; Andrαs Kαldi Kiss and Ιva Bαtori in Eugene Onegin in Budapest; Zoltαn Kocsis

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