The Budapest Opera House

A short survey of its history; reviews of Don Carlo, Carmen and a new production of Eugene Onegin

11 June 2008

Budapest Opera House Nearing its 125th birthday, the Budapest Opera House remains what Hungarians lovingly call 'the world's most beautiful opera house'. Built after years of wrangling and financial difficulties, its very concept was an act of proud defiance, proving that the new partner in the Austro-Hungarian Empire was not inferior even in this field to the majestic Staatsoper in Vienna, then, deservedly, the most august home of this politically always so significant expression of imperial grandeur.

From the outside, the Budapest Opera looks like a smaller twin brother of the Vienna Staatsoper, standing on a magnificent boulevard, fearlessly cutting through the sea of mean and narrow parallel chasms of tenement houses. Its interior, in its architectural grandeur and its superbly and lovingly crafted detail, with staircases matching in grace those of the castles of imperial France, surpasses the more mundane interior of the Staatsoper in Vienna.

The almost century-long nightmare of dictatorships is over, but eighteen years of adjusting to enlightened democratic governance did not bring an end to an apparently characteristic Hungarian malaise. Opposition and the ruling government establishment are engaged in permanent warfare, fired by mutual contempt and even hatred, and occasionally even spreading out into ugly street demonstrations. While music and art flourish as never before, an air of uncertainty hangs over the possible changes in government support and patronage
of the arts, if and when there should be a change of direction. Even within the walls of the opera house, the highest management must come to terms with the dichotomy of how to move the Opera forward, without alienating or even losing their (thus far) faithful audiences, and at the same time attracting a younger generation, for which opera must apparently be made enjoyable by drastic conceptualisation and de-cobwebbing.

Budapest Opera HouseSome examples of rather clumsy efforts in this direction make me share the somewhat modest expectations of Adam Fischer that this two-headed approach will be crowned with success on both fronts. The new Artistic Director, Fischer, an eminent and internationally known conductor with experience of conducting a Ring
in Bayreuth, guarantees high artistic standards. The great ambition of Vass Lajos, the new Director of the Opera, is to bring Budapest in the very centre of Europe's forward-looking operatic life. He has already managed to bring order during the almost chaotic last few years, in which severe financial difficulties, falling attendances, and poor standards created an atmosphere of hopelessness and intrigues.

The birthpangs of the Opera were painful enough as soon as the building was opened in the presence of the Emperor. After some almost humiliatingly awful years, in 1888 the still young and unknown conductor, Gustav Mahler, was invited, against a regular storm of anti-German and mainly antisemitic agitation of the clerico-aristocratic establishment and the slavish press, which accompanied Mahler's two-and-a-half year's rule. During this short time, with his indomitable will and genius, he managed to achieve a miraculous transformation, making the Budapest Opera a shining example to Europe's slumbering operas. Even Brahms - notoriously no lover of opera - and Verdi were deeply impressed.

Mercilessly sacking musicians and singers who owed their positions only to powerful patrons, endless rehearsals (80 hours for Rheingold) and establishing a dictatorial control over every detail of a performance, Mahler achieved wonders, but at the price of increasing hostility. Typically for his innovative talent, he produced Cavalleria rusticana in Budapest a mere six months after it was first played in a minor Italian opera house, and when Pietro Mascagni was still an unknown conductor eaking out a living in the darkest Italian backwaters. After braving attacks increasing in vulgar intensity, Mahler used a possible opening in Hamburg to give his notice and the Opera returned under a very mediocre and reactionary enemy of his, Count Zichy, to the usual xenophobic, jingoistic and antisemitic stance, that characterised much that was to follow under the Horthy Regime and the
following sinister years of the Communist Dictatorship.

Even in these difficult circumstances, the Opera could produce periods of excellence, such as the long reign of Sergio Faglioni and other excellent conductors and some enlightened and brilliant directors. It produced many singers who rose to world fame. The greatest stars of the operaworld were frequently invited and they all
liked to perform in this house. Cecilia Bartoli will be the guest of honour at the 125th birthday celebrations.

A second opera house with a capacity of 2400 seats also offers virtually daily performances, sharing the artistic management and the casts of the main House. The building is now closed, past renovation, and its eventual replacement is still shrouded in the uncertainties of politics. The main House is also due for a complete refit. There are few capitals in Europe that can cater for virtually daily performances for as many as 3900 opera lovers.

The close co-operation with the Franz Liszt Academy, characteristically upgraded to university level, produces scores of talented singers and musicians. A young graduate of the Academy and already a junior member of the Budapest Opera, Bruckner Szabolcs, just won the prestigious Rein Elisabet competition. The orchestral and choral (80 members) standards are up to the highest requirements throughout virtually the entire operatic
repertory. With 23 operas and 11 ballets in its repertory, shown throughout the year in a large variety of subscription season tickets of three to five performances of each, the Budapest Opera has an elsewhere unmatched richness of daily changed repertory seasons. This also enables an almost unlimited number of young singers to get a hearing in major roles.

Don Carlo at the Budapest Opera HouseThe absurd practice of performing all operas in Hungarian dominated the scene for over a century and this resulted in an almost comic situations when performing major Wagner operas with Leuer Hubert, Joseph Manowarda, Marcel Journet, Kirsten Flagstaad, or Nanny Laarsen-Todsen, singing as guests in German, while the rest of the cast sang in Hungarian. For many years during the first half of the century there were no Hungarian Wotans or Siegfrieds. Now, virtually all operas are performed in their original language. I heard Don Carlo and Carmen in excellent Italian and French, respectively, and Eugene Onegin sung in Russian. Even the best seats cost only a fraction of what patrons have to fork out in Western Europe, and a complex price structure allows students, pensioners and other selected groups to attend performances at the price of a capuccino with a croissant. Eleven new productions of operas and ballets are planned for the coming birthday season, and various festival weeks will attract new layers of a younger generations.

A revival of a 1969 production of Don Carlo has shown the conventions of opulent costumes, monumental and solid scenery, large numbers of flag- and mitre-carrying extras and an oversized chorus. The purpose of this revival was to demonstrate the size of the task the new management faced in bringing opera production into the 21st Century. The revival was even called in the programme notes 'Deja vu'. Although the pit, rebuilt after the only slight damage suffered during the war, was enlarged and can house Wagnerian forces, the stage is, relative to the width of he auditorium, rather narrow and shallow. To ignore this and produce opera with legions of extras is counterproductive, but still seems to be the rule. In spite of the constantly repeated performances, often under different conductors and with differing casts, the standards of orchestral playing, chorus movements and singing show thorough preparation and tight discipline. Even long experience doesn't allow me to judge expertly, but I found several principal singers with truly Italianate voice qualities, although few of them have shown outstandingly charismatic stage presence.

Don Carlo at the Budapest Opera HouseBecause of the constantly changing casting of principal singers, at the performance of Don Carlo I was present at, the role of the Grand Inquisitor was so poorly cast that the shattering meeting with Philip bordered on the inadequate, Philip towering over the Grand Inquisitor both vocally and acting-wise. Wiedemann Bernadette's Eboli would have been impressive in any international cast. Don Carlos, only one of several leading tenors available, sang with complete self-confidence and excellent Italian pronunciation, while still lacking perhaps in charismatic acting brilliance. Altogether, a firmly conducted and dignified production, without pretentious efforts to 'conceptualize' and superimpose 'Regietheater' futilities.

The production of Carmen has unfortunately shown that the present vogue of conceptualization - a word as ugly as the subject - has also encouraged the Budapest Opera not to be left behind. A year or two ago during a short visit to Budapest I was unpleasantly surprised, that an otherwise fairly conventional Meistersinger was so
produced that the college of the Mastersingers was sitting on enormous, green rubber balls, as used in gyms, which had to be rolled on the stage and kept in position by the 'Lehrlings', so that the Masters did not fall down. I took a dim view of this nonsense, but at the time I did not approach the Budapest Opera in a critical spirit.

After the very first few bars of the prelude of Carmen, the curtain opened and a press photographer, standing in the middle of the stage, pretended to take snapshots of the audience. I immediately felt that this Carmen was to be a poor imitation of the now so frequent Mamma Mia-ization of great operas. Worse was to come. Still during the prelude, two scantily dressed girls rushed to the stage and pretended to fight, followed by an equally scantily dressed youth who engaged in some erotic nonsense with one of the girls, while the music reached its end. Only then was the square populated by a full-strength chorus, far too many extras, large groups of teenagers in identical flimsy clothes running about, mixing with what was supposed to be visiting tourists, dressed in uniform white contemporary suits and the obligatory straw hats, pretending to take part in getting the amorous attentions of Carmen, to the disapproval of their wives, one of them boxing her partner's ears. Extras and chorus members kept taking digital shots throughout the act.

In the second act, the square of the first act remained the scene of Lilas Pastia's inn, with the same admixture of tourists in white straw hats. Escamillo, sung by a young Russian baritone, made a creditable entry, but the ballet scenes were not up to what one should expect in a more than adequate production.

The third act played yet again on the square of the first act, without even hinting that the scene calls for a sinister mountain pass. Hopes, that the last act might, faut de mieux, play simply in front of a wall with a gate, to represent the arena, were dashed. It was, yet again, the same square of the first act that was used. The short but normally so invigorating ballet insert was again in the hands (or legs) of the same dancers, this time pretending to fight a bull. The entry of the piccadors, etc and the celebrities was poorly presented. When Carmen was, at last, stabbed, a line of the scantily dressed young ladies filed out and just stood on each side of the gate while Jose stood there facing the audience, almost hoping that the the curtain will quickly fall. The cast gave a disciplined, if not very inspiring performance. Scenery, costumes, lighting and direction did not help them to give their best. The orchestral interludes were finely performed. One must hope that Carmen will be due for a thorough refit.

Budapest Opera HouseTchaikowsky, who hated Grand Opera and developed a venomous contempt for Verdi in particular, agressively demanded that Eugene Onegin should be presented without pretensions and spectacle, and its action placed firmly in the Russia of the 1820s. Every single demand of the author has been sinned against in Balazs Kovalik's newly produced Onegin. Kovalik promised 'no bed and no windows' , but he claimed that his was not to be an avant garde production, but rather surrealistic. He felt that scenery and furniture distract singers and audiences alike. Kovalik studied in the West and already produced opera there. He learned a lot from and admires Patrice Chereau, and is the senior producer of the Budapest Opera.

This production has blown up the delicate structure of Onegin into a spectacular musical. On a completely bare stage, a sharply tilted platform occupying virtually the entire acting area is built over the revolving stage
machinery so that it can be turned and tilted at any angle in every direction, even while the performers are standing on it. Four large, white latticed panels hang at the side so that they can individually be moved around the stage. A giant swinging pendulum dominates the bare stage, until Tatyana stops it. She and Olga sing their romance sitting on either of two panels, which are turned into giant swings flying and sliding about dangerously in the air all over the stage. Tatyana is left alone on the bare stage after her chat with her mother and her nurse, in the topmost corner of the sloping platform. She does not write her letter, but sinks into a delirious fantasy, in the course of which she rolls over and over the entire length of the slope. By then the latticed panels form a wall behind which Onegin appears first in a ghostly greenish light but then steps forward and the two are engaged in passionate embraces, again rolling down the slope while entwined in the positions customary for stage representations of ultimate union. And all this, while Tatyana was most convincingly and securely sung by Eva Batori.

Symbolic interpretations underlined every action, every costume, every scenic and lighting effect, driven home relentlessly and very often so that the meaning of the symbolism was to me, and presumaby to 1199 other members of the audience, inexplicable. The bucolic scenes of the making of jam, of pelting each other with
berries by the villagers who come to greet and serenade the Larin family, were turned into riotous crowd scenes, with the entire chorus and many extras crowding the still-tilting platform. There was not even a hint that we were in a Russian village setting at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Although Onegin wore elegantly tailored snow-white tails throughout, Lensky entered wearing a very odd red suit. The crowd was dressed in a completely haphazard, contemporary manner. Some of the women in the chorus were tearing the clothes off several identicaly dressed young men, and behaving as if the scene had been set for an open-air orgy.

In the birthday celebration act, every single participant was dressed from top to bottom in identical costumes in what the producer called 'vulgar red'. Even Lensky, moving around in the crowd chasing Olga, was dressed in this way. The producer said in an interview that the first act had to be kept in the colours of nature, the second act in red, and the scene in Prince Gremin's Palace in gold, while the last acts were to be dominated by black, apart from Onegin, who remained throughout dressed in his immaculate white tails. Only the duel scene suffered no symbolic intervention, apart from a group of exceptionally tall and slim figures, dressed in shoulderless and tightfitting black PVC garments, lining up in the background, when Lensky was shot, possibly wishing to give the impression that like in Greek tragedies, a doomladen fate awaits us all. Lensky, having the whole stage for himself, gave a moving interpretation of that great aria. From the point of view of singing performance, Lensky (Attila Fekete) dominated the male cast.

Interior of  the Budapest Opera HouseFor the ball scene in Prince Gremin's palace, the house lights near the stage were turned on, impressively illuminating the beautifully chiselled columns surrounding the stage. The sloping platform was overfilled with the chorus, dressed in glittering gold costumes. For some reason, Onegin was crouching on the floor under the feet of the dancers, until he eventually emerged to meet Tatyana, dressed in a sober black evening dress. Prince Gremin was sung by Peter Fried, one of the two principal basses, alternating in the role. With a powerful yet mellow voice, his Prince was a radiant and proud husband and dominated the short scene shared with Onegin. In the final scene, the latticed panels moved in again, and formed transparent walls either preventing Onegin and Tatyana from embracing, or allowing them to meet in a final desperate clinch before Tatyana escaped through the panels, now sprouting a door, which she slammed behind her, with Onegin collapsing in his despair on the floor. The giant pendulum and the Greek chorus lining up behind the transparent panels made a final appearance.

The orchestra, under the Chief Conductor, Janos Kovacs, gave a mellifluous and faultless performance, with the horns and the winds excelling in their very difficult passages in Lensky's most impressively sung aria. I had to admire the discipline and dedication of all the singers to fall in with the occasionally athletic demands of the producer. The constantly changing and ingeniously handled lighting effects, the smooth, noiseless and precise movement of the stage machinery, the carefully choreographed chorus, although finding it difficult to move on the lopsided platform filled to the last square inch, and struggling to polonaise uphill, all this gave a lively but essentially uneasy feeling to the evening. It was almost as if the producer wanted to show what the House was capable of doing in this new world of opera production.

If the price of keeping alive performing and producing opera in coming years is to abandon tradition and convention, so be it, even if I am not persuaded that Tatyana should not have a bed to write her letter on and a window through which to admire her beloved Russian meadows. Fortunately for opera lovers, Tchaikowsky has broad enough shoulders to load on some bricks with sharp edges.

By Francis Shelton