Opera in Budapest

Wagner: Parsifal; Szokolay: Blood Wedding; Strauss: Der Rosenkavalier

Budapest, Hungary, 20 April 2010 4 stars

The Zichy PalaceParsifal, Saturday evening, 10 April

I wonder if Budapest opera audiences realise how fortunate they are. Parsifal is performed in the Budapest Opera House each year on Good Friday and once or twice more within a few days. More often than not, the same cast and conductor appeared the year before (and many years before), ever since Parsifal was first staged in communist Hungary in 1983. András Mikó's 1983 production – with beautiful choreography for the flower maidens by László Seregi – also stays the same; thus ensemble and confidence strengthen each year, both for performers and for their regular audience. Attendance is not so much a visit to the opera house but a traditional part taking at a familiar Easter ritual. Presumably Wagner would approve, especially as stage directions seem to follow those of Wagner's.

László Polgár has been singing the part of Gurnemanz since the above mentioned 1983 performance. Although a member of the Zurich Opera House, he has been returning in the role to the Budapest Opera House year after year. I heard him last year and it was a must for me to hear him again. As last year, he was scheduled to sing all performances (which this year amounted to two). Apparently he did indeed sing on Good Friday but – according to reliable reports – by then he was evidently ill. So was Béla Perencz, the regular Amfortas. But while Perencz appeared in the performance which I attended on 10th April, Polgar did not. There was no announcement made, although the cast list for the day showed Ferenc Valter as Gurnemanz. Valter was scheduled as Titurel but presumably understudied the part of Gurnemanz. He seemed slightly tentative at the beginning but, in the event, gave a noble rendering of this not inconsiderable part. I was surprised that his performance, possibly his first ever Gurnemanz, was taken for granted by his colleagues and I was even more surprised to see him appear in the role of the Father in Szokolay's Blood Wedding the following morning, less than 13 hours after he concluded the marathon role of Gurnemanz. I wonder how many singers would deliver such back to back performances.

Supposedly still ill, nevertheless Béla Perencz turned in a vocally powerful and deeply moving performance; just as last year, although he was in good health then. Although placed very far back at the stage, Ferenc Cserhalmi (Titurel) – presumably an understudy for the role – turned in an authoritative performance in good voice. András Molnár is the original Parsifal of the 1983 production and has been singing the role ever since. Admittedly of a certain age, Molnár's Parsifal is still fully credible and is well sung. It is not so much a question of performing the role than that of being Parsifal. István Bercelly was a strong Klingsor both dramatically and vocally but I have reservations about Judit Németh's Kundry. While suitably menacing and tortured when the part so required, I was not convinced about Németh's seductive power.

Conductor János Kovács cares for every detail and allows the musical development to take its course. He limits his fortissimos and pianissimos to a minimum, thus making them really effective. In the Overture he contrasted the brass fanfare beautifully with the cantabile strings and this approach characterised his reading of the score throughout. Although allowing speed when necessary – for instance, in the spirited orchestral introduction to Act Two – Kovács presented the overall arch of the structure with clarity. Without doubt, Kovács is one of the great Wagner conductors of our times. 


Blood Wedding, Sunday morning, 11 April

Sándor Szokolay's y 1964 opera – originally in three acts and seven tableaus (and, according to my score, with 150 minutes of music) – was presented in one continuous act and it lasted for 90 minutes. I have never seen the three-act original, but the impact of the shortened version without intervals was powerful. The libretto follows the text of Federico Garcia Lorca's play Blood Wedding, although in a Hungarian rendering by the eminent poet Gyula Illyés. In the wild ritualistic elements the music often reminds of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, but scenes such as the beautiful lullaby duet – Act One, Tableau Two, Scene One in the 1964 score – could have sprung from ancient folklores of many countries. The performance was sung in Hungarian but with English subtitles to assist non-Hungarians in the audience. There were many mesmerising moments – which included a macabre dance duet by the rival men (who kill each other) – but the orchestra (or scoring?) was often too loud to hear the Hungarian words and diction (especially by the singer playing the part of the Mother) was not always clear. Staging (Balázs Kovalik), choreography (Gábor Horváth) and the permanently dark scenery (Péter Horgas) were impressive and fully expressed the claustrophobic elements of the story and score. The singers delivered with gusto and conductor Péter Oberfrank excelled. I cannot claim that the piece serves as easy Sunday morning entertainment – as the relatively low audience participation seemed to have proved – but it is a magnificent work and this production is well worth seeing.


Der Rosenkavalier, Sunday evening, 11 April

This is an international production – a co-production with the Slovak National Theatre –  with a Latvian stage director (Andrejs Žagars), German stage designer (Julia Müer), Latvian costume designer (Kristine Pasternaka), English lighting designer (Kevin Wyn-Jones) and German dramaturg (Jochen Breiholz), although with a fully Hungarian cast. Although updated to the 1900s, the staging faithfully represents Hoffmannsthal's libretto and the whole cast performed well. But what stays in my mind are two exceptional performances – surely fit for any opera house anywhere in the world – by Géza Gábor (Baron Ochs) and Viktória Mester (Octavian).Gábor does not present Ochs as a buffoon, a laughable idiot. His Ochs is someone whom many of us know: he is confident in his abilities and sees no reason for depriving himself of anything he can get. Gábor's voice reaches and sustains the very low registers with the greatest of ease and he seems also comfortable with the top range of the role. Mester's Octavian reminded me that hers is indeed the title role. Mester is charmingly boyish and copes well with the difficulty of playing the part of a boy who occasionally pretends to be a girl. Above all, Mester's singing is powerful and musical. I would have preferred more sensitivity in the overall musical direction but Gábor and Mester (and some of the staging) made this evening's performance unforgettable.            

By Agnes Kory


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