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Georgina Lukács 





By Joel Kasow

BUDAPEST, 27 April 2005 —Budapest is a place I long wanted to visit, a wish that was finally fulfilled mid-March. The city lives up to its reputation of charm and warmth. My primary goal was to see four operas in three days (mission accomplished) and at the same time see as much as possible of the city.

The Hungarian capital suffered heavy damage during the Second World War, some of it repaired under the Soviet occupation while other parts were subject to reconstruction that rapidly became urban blight. Today, a building that was a gem of the Communist era on one of the most prominent squares has had its façade stripped and is being thoroughly renovated.  In the last few years, three sections of the city have been added to UNESCO’s list of World Heritage sites: the Buda castle area, the Danube embankment and most recently Andrássy Avenue. The first is the oldest surviving part of the city which was largely laid flat under Turkish domination, while Andrássy Avenue is the heart of late 19th century reconstruction following the principles of Baron Haussmann. Unfortunately the stunning facades are best seen from the first floor as ground level has been taken over by shops, some offering high quality merchandise, others simply a reflection of the MacDonaldization of the world. Continental Europe’s oldest underground line is another feature of the avenue.

Andrássy Avenue

The Opera House occupies a significant block front here, opposite what once was the home of the Ballet, now scheduled to be remodeled as a hotel. Concerts once took place in the Liszt Hall, too small by today’s standards, but now are given in the newly-built Palace of the Arts that houses two concert halls and the collection of the Ludwig Museum of Contemporary Art. Some may protest at the inconvenient location a good fifteen to twenty minutes from downtown, but the day I was there didn’t seem to hurt attendance, whether participants in a youth choir festival/competition or visitors to the museum which was well-prepared for the younger set with easels, paper and paint set out.

Just next door is the new National Theater, far less successful architecturally on the outside with its bizarre mingling of disparate architectural elements reminiscent of a Florida shopping mall. The Palace of the Arts opened a few days prior to my visit, its large welcoming space already setting one at ease. The larger hall (around 1700 places) radiates warmth with its maple paneling insterspersed with painted gypsum panels (a budgetary concession). Russell Johnson of Artek will be on hand for several months for the fine-tuning of the acoustics.

Budapest Opera House

At the end of Andrássy Avenue is the Millennium Square with its impressive Heroes’ Monument. The Museum of Fine Arts has two buildings facing one another. I was able to see a special exhibition of Coptic art coming from various private collections in Egypt which had never previously been shown as a whole. As parts of the museum are under reconstruction, one never is certain if some of the prime elements of its collection will be open to the public.

Returning to my primary objective, I was able to see a Bartók double bill the day I arrived, the opening of the 25th Budapest Spring Festival: a recent production of Bluebeard’s Castle staged by Kovalik Balázs and The Miraculous Mandarin as choreographed by Gyula Harangozó. Mandarin’s checkered past led to its banning as obscene at the creation in Cologne in 1926 (eight years after its completion), the work faring no better in Budapest in 1945. Harangozó revised his work in 1956, and it is that version, now set in stone, that is still given. To be honest, the work is dated, the classic steps not really attuned to the music.

Bluebeard was a surprise, the conductor, János Kovács, also speaking the Prologue before a mirror, with the orchestra occupying risers covering most of the stage. Bluebeard and Judith had the forestage, largely taken up by a sunken basin filled with water, though they were allowed the occasional venture onto dry land. Given the difficulties inherent in staging the work, the burden placed on its interpreters is not light, with  Andrea Meláth displaying sufficient strength of personality so that the audience was permanently involved in her emotional progress. István Rácz  does not possess the tonal palette of Meláth but is so immersed in his portrayal that we are shattered at the end. The orchestra and conductor made it all sound very easy, but that too only added to our enjoyment.

 Bartok: Bluebeard's Castle

A new production of Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth once again allowed Kovács and the orchestra to shine, though Atilla Vidnyánszky’s largely traditional production featured such "modern" excrescences as a young couple doubling Katerina and Sergei to little purpose. Nor do I see the need to replace the discomfiture of Aksinya being rolled about in a barrel by an orgy. Once again, one cast member shone, the soprano  Gyöngyi Lukács (Georgina in the west) in the title role. Her gleaming soprano, harnessed to a gutsy chest register, was the embodiment of what one wants to hear in the role. Gulyás Dénes was not always a convincing actor, but Sergei is the sort of role that embodies many of the character traits attributed to tenors. István Berczelly didn’t have the sonorous bass we like to hear as Boris, but his loutishness was effective. I also liked the Drunk of Sándor Kecskés. Alekszandr Belosub created a unit exterior set that allowed various rooms in the house to be turned so that the cinematic flow was not disturbed.

Georgina Lukács and István Berczelly 

A Sunday morning performance of Erkel Ferenc’s Bánk Bán took me to a more popular district of Budapest. The Erkel Theater resembles a large neighborhood cinema, both inside and out, but I was told that it would soon be closing for renovations. The repertoire is shared between the theaters, and what opera fan would miss the opportunity to hear an opera by Hungary’s national opera composer in situ. Italian influences abound in the work, with big ensembles, a coloratura mad scene, people being killed right and left, but an enthusiastic (and young) audience lapped it all up. If I understood correctly, the performance was celebrating the 25th anniversary of tenor András Molnár’s debut or association with the company, and it must be admitted that he took his time warming up in the title role. A honeyed tone and an effective stage persona carried the day. The only name I recognized was Sándor Sólyom Nagy who barked his way through one of the villainous roles. The remainder of the cast  illustrated the lack of depth in the resources of the company.

Erkel Ferenc’s Bánk Bán

A Sunday evening performance of Don Carlo (4-act version) closed my stay. Mikó András’s production had been replaced, but audiences (I was told) made it clear they wanted no part of a more modern approach, so that this 1969 production was resuscitated. Again, it was the women who dominated. Ildikó Cserna  was a touching figure as Elisabetta, making it clear that there is a teacher somewhere in Hungary who knows how to guide sopranos. Andrea  Ulbrich was an Eboli in the Cossotto mold, clearly in need of a coach to instruct her in better vocal manners.

Ildikó Cserna and Mihály Kálmándy

Kolos Kováts may be past his prime, but his authority was clear as King Philip. Péter Kelen in the title role was clearly stretched beyond his means, rhythmically unstable, singing off-pitch, particularly with the Posa of Mihály Kálmándi  literally towering over him. Conductor György Vashegyi introduced a number of luftpausen that broke the thread of the music, and the orchestra was not in as bright a form as on my other two evenings.

Mihály Kálmándy and Kolos Kováts

Summing up, if you want to see opera largely untouched by evil stage directors, sung for the most part in a straightforward manner, with an orchestra and conductor that can be superlative, you won’t go too far wrong with a visit to Budapest.


Joel Kasow is the Operanet editor of Culturekiosque.com.

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