Friday, July 09, 2010


I Vespri Siciliani
Die Meistersinger

Hungarian State Opera
Budapest 25-27 June, 2010

The Hungarian State Opera House in Budapest is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year. But it’s always timely to visit Budapest, as I recently discovered on my first-ever stay there.

Two others things I also discovered: there really are two cities here: Buda and Pest. They originally were two towns separated by the Danube. In 1873, they combined with Alt-Buda to form what today is known as Budapest. Along with virtually every place that fell under Soviet domination following World War II, Budapest lapsed into decay. It’s been making its way into modernity, but it’s also showing signs of the recent economic downturn that’s afflicting all big cities in Europe -- “for rent” and “super sale” signs everywhere.

Nonetheless, trains and buses are running, the streets are relatively clean and the drinking water, I found, is salubrious.

Possibly because Hungary lies far into eastern Europe, it appears to be a step behind its more affluent neighbors to its west and north in emerging from the grip of its cultural past. While the nation and its capital strive to move forward, the gravity of the nation’s tumultuous heritage -- especially its aggregate of splendors -- continues to present a restraining counter-balance.

The Hungarian State Opera today reflects this psychological dichotomy. The ornate exterior of Budapest’s principal theater, built in the neo-Renaissance style by Miklós Ybl, dominates the mid- and late 19th century buildings that line the elegant tree-lined Andrassy Boulevard. Inside, broad marble staircases lead everywhere. Columns ascend into deeply vaulted tiled ceilings. Dimly lit alcoves with walls of dark damask silks offer tacit invitations for trysts and intrigue.

The gold and crystal auditorium seats about 1,200 and remains physically pretty much unchanged since it was completed in 1885, despite a major facelift in the 1970s. Gustav Mahler (1888-1891) and, more recently, Otto Klemperer (1947-1950) were active here. If they were to appear there today, they would likely recognize the brass chandelier and shepherd’s crook sconces that illuminate the building. Acoustically, the house is a marvel: the balance between singers and orchestra is remarkably even and supported by a pleasing reverb that quickens in bass-heavy passages. This kind of aural constellation can still be heard in Europe’s older opera houses, but rarely in the United States: only Philadelphia’s Academy of Music (dating from 1857) comes to mind.

To close the first part of this festive year, the Opera’s management scheduled three of its current blockbusters on consecutive evenings: I Vespri Siciliani, Carmen and Die Meistersinger -- something of an undertaking for any European opera house. What surprised me most about all three performances is how retro everything seemed. Naturalistic sets, singers belting out their big numbers from down-stage center, the prompter audibly cuing musical entrances. I had entered a time-warp. What a refreshing change from the dreadful concept productions, the cookie-cutter vocal techniques and awkward stage deportment that characterizes so many opera productions today!

What also surprised me in this age of jet-setting singers was how “native” the casts were.

Every cast member in I Vespri Siciliani was either Hungarian or Eastern Bloc, and they were all terrific. Janos Bándi (Arrigo), Zsuzsanna Baszinka (Elena), Viktor Massányi (Monforte) and Istvan Racz (Procida) probably could all hold their own at larger houses, but they need to feel their roles rather than simply articulating them. Baszinka, for example, hit all the high notes bang-on and animated the coloratura passages flawlessly, but she has yet to adumbrate the clash between love and duty from which Elena finds no escape.

Gergely Kesselyák led a briskly paced, disciplined performance, flexibly navigating the vagaries of rhythm that used to enliven “traditional” Verdi performance practices, as long as everybody kept in sync.

The State Opera has enough home-grown singers to mount a respectable Carmen, and that they did on the following night. The first of several vocal discoveries during my visit was Zoltan Nyári, who transformed Don José from an easily manipulated recruit, who chucks everything for deceptive love, into a walking deadly weapon, once he realizes that he’s been used. Nyári has matinee idol looks and a tall, tightly built frame, that fronts a large, attractively lean tenor sound. Whether he can break out of the operatic Orpheum Circuit remains to be heard.

Gabriella Fodor was a darker-voiced Micaela than I’m used to hearing, but her way around “Je dis que rien ne m'épouvante” sounded like she may be going places. Before she can take flight internationally, though, she must weld the middle and upper ranges of her voice into a more felicitous entity.

Eva Panczel plays Carmen as a boob-bouncing bitch, but the warmth in her bass line elicits uneasy sympathy. In its present state, her Carmen takes a back bench in the well-documented gallery of great cigarette factory trouble-makers. But the ear savored such utterances as “la carte impitoyable répétera: la mort!” long after the final curtain descended. Net-net: Mester is an aurally exciting Carmen by any measure.

To be savored less was András Kaldi’s Escamillio, demonstrating that handsome is doesn’t necessarily mean handsome sings. The voice is, to be fair, B-line clinquant, but his toreador went wanting for a modicum of pizzazz. Maybe it was just a bad evening.

The cast was well rounded out by a cadre of house comprimari, but the lady who sang Frasquita tended to come in way behind the beat. Catch up, Luisze! You’re behind, honey!

On my final visit to the State Opera during my first stay in Budapest, I was treated to a wonderful Meistersinger. It was the last opera event of the season, and many in the cast were alternates for those who appeared in the first performances earlier in the season.

This was an “ensemble performance” that may well have been unique. Nearly everybody in the cast was a company member. Some may have been active at the house, even before the Soviet regime collapsed. With the exception of Andras Molnar, who sang Walther, only a few are known outside Hungary: Bela Perencz as Sachs, Peter Kálmán as Beckmesser, Monika Gonzalez as Eva, László Kiss Beöthy as David, Erika Gal as Magdalena, István Berczelly as Pogner, and so on. The stand-out in this superior group was Kálmán’s unusual Beckmesser. The menacing edge to his dark baritone transformed the grumpy notary into a predecessor of Alberich and Klingsor -- a credible line of succession that never before has occurred to me.

In all, it was a breathtaking assemblage, not least because the “style” unfolded on this occasion harkened back to an age when each European country had its own approach to operatic singing and performance. I could could try characterizing the “Hungarian approach” but it would be as futile as trying to describe a primary color. If you’re curious to get some idea of the vocal if not necessarily the interpretational approach to Wagner that prevailed before the jet blurred national boundaries, listen to a fascinating recording of Meistersinger from 1949, sung in Hungarian, led by no less than Otto Klemperer.

Speaking of conductors: if there was a star at this performance it was Janos Kovás, whose silvery mane and a certain way with his baton betrayed decades of experience with Wagner at the podium. I had been resigned to believing that the so-called “Wagner sound” which came so naturally to Klemperer, Stokowski and Goodall, not to mention Furtwängler and Knappertsbusch (neither of whom I heard live), was long extinct, but there it was in all its recondite wonder. Taking a quick glance into the pit during an interval, I noticed that most of the orchestra members are too young to have worked with any of these titans. So Kovács worked miracles, bringing the splendor of this bygone sound briefly back to life.

I am determined to visit Budapest again and maybe often. My gut tells me, that wherever Europe is going culturally, Budapest may get there first.

©Sam H. Shirakawa

[Ed. Note: This post has been revised to reflect that Eva Panczel was the Carmen, and not Viktória Mester, as the review originally stated. 8/16/10]

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