Wishing to sample opera life in Budapest, I visited the city of my birth for six days.
During this period I could have attended eight performances but, in the event, I elected to go only to five.
L'anima del filosofo ossia Orfeo ed Euridice (The Soul of the Philosopher, or Orpheus and Euridice) was produced by the Budapest Spring Festival, rather than by the Budapest Opera House, but both performances – 29 and 31 March (of which I saw the latter) – took place in the Budapest Opera House with resident company members performing under their chief conductor Ádám Fischer.
Haydn's last opera, composed in 1791 for the King's Theatre in London, was not performed during Haydn's life. Indeed, the premiere did not take place until 1951, when this unjustly neglected masterpiece was performed during the Maggio Musicale at the Teatro della Pergola in Florence with a cast including Maria Callas and Boris Christoff under the conductor Erich Kleiber. A few performances and recordings followed, including one with Joan Sutherland and Nicolai Gedda in 1967, and more recently with Cecilia Bartoli, who teamed up with Christopher Hogwood's Academy of Ancient Music.
Although the current Haydn year resulted in sporadic performances of this opera in various parts of the world, few could have had the dedicated and entirely convincing advocacy of conductor Ádám Fischer. His tackling of the all important choral numbers – some ten or so – was riveting, and at times reminded me of the choral finales in Fidelio. Fischer is a seasoned Haydn conductor – he has recorded all of Haydn's symphonies – and an experienced opera conductor. With his natural musicality and immense knowledge he couldn't go wrong, and he didn't. His advocacy extended to writing an excellent piece in the programme notes and, prior to the performances, to personally introducing modern copies of baroque brass instruments – horn, trumpet and trombone – which the orchestra used alongside modern instruments for these Haydn performances.
At times I found the concept of the staging somewhat difficult to understand. Had I not been familiar with some versions of the Orpheus and Euridice story, I would have been hard pressed to figure out what was happening. In fact, the plot in Haydn's version (that is in Carlo Badini's libretto) differs from most other versions. For instance, here the meeting between Orpheus and Euridice after her death only occurs in a dream by Orpheus.
The set designs appeared to be deliberately ambiguous and the costumes (which included chorus members wearing red balls on their heads) did not make matters clearer. There were long static scenes in which I wished that the people on the stage had moved, but in other scenes there were lots of comings and goings yet the music seemed to require less movement on the stage. However, director Sándor Zsótér produced some highly inventive and effective details. For instance, during one of her long arias, Euridice was lying on the top of several men who themselves were lying on the stage in a row and kept turning from their front to their back simultaneously thus creating the image of Euridice lying and singing on waves of water. I hasten to add that the intention for this image might have been other than waves of water: I am reporting what I think I saw.
The two main parts were clearly and beautifully delivered by Kenneth Tarver (Orpheus) – whose stamina, both vocally and physically, is admirable – and by Andrea Rost, whose nuances of vocal colours are of note.
I loved the staging of Tannhäuser. It was clear and visually beautiful with set design by Sándor Kecskeméti and costumes by Judit Schäffer. Perhaps the staging could be classified as old fashioned or traditional – this production dates from the 1990s – but it was inventive in details and musical in concept. For the overture and the Venusberg scene Wagner's Paris version was used, therefore ballet was included, but for the rest of the opera they went back to the original Dresden version. For my taste, the erotic ballet seemed to be a bit over the top in intensity even for the underworld of Venus, but there was never any clash between musical lines and stage business. The visual images and acting clearly told the story and greatly enhanced the musical performance. Indeed, the work of veteran stage director Miklós Szinetár ought to be studied by all those opera directors who make the music side of opera subservient to their own interpretation of operatic plots.
Conductor Ádám Medveczky spaced the music gently yet he created all the tension and excitement which the score specifies. János Bándi was magnificent in the title role. His voice does not sound like what is regarded these days as a Wagner voice – I believe he spent a considerable amount of time singing Mozart and Italian opera – but his musicality, stamina, and totally convincing acting makes him a truly great Wagner singer. Although occasionally very slightly off pitch, Gabriella Felber's presumably deliberately subdued portrayal of Elisabeth made an excellent contrast to the highly seductive, strong voiced Venus of Csilla Boros. This was a Tannhäuser performance to cherish for a long time.
The Barber of Seville represented another doyen of Hungarian stage directors and another revival (although with modifications). András Békés first staged this production in 1986 and this time, in his eighty-second year, he revived it in collaboration with Balázs Kovalik, a leading opera director of the younger generation. As with Szinetár in Tannhäuser, Békés bases his stage direction on the music. Movement on the stage – indeed, movement in Rossini's music – is of the essence, and at times it is achieved by objects rather than by people. The curtains and chandeliers belonging to the set design move up and down with the music during the overture, while the storm scene is 'danced' only by these curtains.
Conductor Géza Köteles judged the tempos and the mood of the stage direction (of surreal theatre rather than comedy) well. Initially I was taken aback by the use of the modern grand piano – Köteles conducted as well as played the continuo in the recitatives – but in reality I ought to be surprised by a harpsichord or a fortepiano in other opera houses which use such early instruments alongside their modern resident orchestras. Taking the title role, Csaba Szegedi made his debut in any major operatic role: this was a satisfying and promising debut.
Kázmér Sárkány was excellent as the long suffering but fully virile Dr Bartolo. Sárkány appeared in the 1986 original of this production but he sang the part of Fiorello at the time.
The Chinese Yang Li gave a confident and witty portrayal of Rosina while Dóra Érsek sang and acted well the role of old Berta, but she looked young and beautiful which made a bit of a nonsense of her part in the plot. Kolos Kováts was luxury casting as music teacher Basilio. He is wonderful as Bluebeard in Bartók's Bluebeard Castle and he has tackled all the major bass roles in the opera repertoire with great success. However, he sang Basilio in the 1986 original production, so his appearance this time too is rather poignant. I must admit that whenever Kováts was on the stage, I found it difficult to focus on anybody else. However, this was only my fault.
Although I saw a Saturday morning matinee performance, I was still amazed and delighted to see an unusually large number of well-behaved children in the auditorium. Most of them came with their parents, although some attended with their school groups. They were attentive and clearly interested: as far as audiences are concerned, the future of opera in Budapest seems to be in good hands.
Pomádé király új ruhája [King Pomádé's New Clothes] by György Ránki (1907 – 1992) is a witty, well-constructed and charming opera for children. Based on The Emperor's New Clothes by Hans Christian Andersen, the libretto and music focus on introducing children to a variety of musical instruments and musical styles. Nevertheless, at the time of its 1953 premier, King Pomádé – that is, the stupid dictator – was seen as a parody on Mátyás Rákosi, who was Hungary's prime minister approved by Stalin. The opera had several versions. Originally it had three acts and was performed with a full orchestra. Later, in 1971, a one-act version (still with full orchestra) appeared, and finally (in the 1980s) Ránki wrote the chamber ensemble version for a TV broadcast.
The current – that is the October 2008 – production, directed by Attila Toronykőy, uses the one-act chamber version. However, as the performances – as indeed the programme notes – are aimed at children, the one act is performed with an interval. Out of the nine participating instruments of the Pomádé chamber ensemble, eight are mentioned – that is, wittily sung about – within the opera. Dances are also explained in the shape of Scottish, Arab and Chinese dances. The Arab dance uses the A Dis (=D sharp) A B E B A motive, therefore it spells with music notes Addis Abeba, which is one of the occasional versions for spelling the capital of Ethiopia.
Toronykőy's production is a delight from beginning to end for children of all ages (up to the age of 100!). I had a wonderful time, as did regular children including babes in arms. Krisztian Cser sang the title character, in his first major operatic role, with charm and humour. Dániel Pataki Potyók (Dani) and Róbert Rezsnyák (Béni) were hilarious as the two tricksters selling the magic clothes which are supposedly seen only by clever people. Pataki Potyók's velvety tenor is particularly pleasing; I would love to hear him as Tamino, Belmonte, Jaquino and in other major classical roles. Rita Rácz (Dzsufi) delighted with her virtuoso coloratura and charming stage personality. Conductor Géza Köteles delivered an appropriately spirited performance which included a bit of acting too (as he and his nine-piece band were on stage throughout).
The music includes two Hungarian folk songs but also light music and jazz elements: I am sure that this charming opera would translate well into an English (and other) environment.
During the communist period, performances of Parsifal were not encouraged in Hungary, as the celebration of Good Friday and other religious thoughts were taboo in the regime's ideology. However, by the early 1980s the political scene had considerably changed. In February 1983, on the hundredth anniversary of Wagner's death, Parsifal was staged in the Budapest Opera House. The production was directed by chief stage director András Mikó and was conducted by music director János Ferencsik. Parsifal was sung by András Molnár, Gurnemanz by László Polgár. Director András Mikó was assisted by Daisy Boschan.
The production – traditional as Wagner would have wished, dignified and clear – became a regular part of the Budapest Opera House's Easter season and it is still performed annually. I am not sure about other years, but this current season there are three performances: on Palm Sunday, Good Friday and Easter Monday.
I saw the Palm Sunday performance. Sadly, during the third act I was greatly distracted by someone with a very loud and regularly ringing mobile phone very near to me in the audience. (Yes, the mind boggles: Palm Sunday, a great masterpiece and a great opera house – a sort of holy trinity – yet someone with a mobile phone ruined it.)
From what I was able to see and hear (minus mobile phone disturbance), the production is magic. It is – as explained above - the 1983 staging, revived by Daisy Boschan from the original team. András Molnár still sings Parsifal and László Polgár still sings Gurnemanz. They know and respect their parts. Molnár's voice is slightly underpowered for the young Parsifal, but what Molnár lacks in volume, he makes up for in purity. Polgár looks and sounds like the ideal Gurnemanz. His German diction is admirable (as is to be expected from a regular principal singer in the Zurich opera house). Kundry was taken – as far as I can tell, for the first time in her life – by Irmgard Vilsmaier. Hers is a great Wagnerian voice and she knows the style. I could not fault any aspect of her performance. But it must have been daunting for her to appear in her first ever Kundry alongside veterans Molnár and Polgár, who by now live their parts. I am certain that Vilsmaier's excellent portrayal will grow into an all-time great portrayal. Béla Perencz was a passionate Amfortas with a grand voice to match.
The Klingsor scene was beautifully choreographed by octogenarian László Seregi – presumably already in 1983 – who has been a leading choreographer inside and outside Hungary for several decades. The costumes (by Péter Makai) for the flower maidens lent themselves to gently waving as if the wind was playing with the flowers.
János Kovács, a long-time conductor in the Budapest Opera House, conducted with humility and with an intimate familiarity with every note of the score. Kovács is clearly a humble but able servant of music: he is a refreshing change from far too many conductors who use music to achieve stardom.
I am delighted to conclude that the standard of performances in the Budapest Opera House is high. On the other hand, ticket prices – even with unfavourable exchange rate for the currently weak sterling – are very low compared, for instance, with Royal Opera House and English National Opera prices. The best seat in the Budapest Opera House is about £30. So no wonder that I met several English groups who visited Budapest for a week or two to attend opera performances. As many of these opera tourists told me, they had a wonderful time. So did I.
By Agnes Kory
Photos: Ádám Fischer and Irmgard Vilsmaier
Opera Review: Hansel und Gretel at the ROH with Irmard Vilsmaier
Opera Review: Haydn's La fedelta premiata at the RAM
Opera Review: Wagner's Parsifal with Bernard Haitink at the ROH
Opera Review: Rossini's The Barber of Seville at ENO