By David Shengold
NEW YORK — The Hungarian State Opera began its first-ever visit to the United States on Oct. 30, when a contingent numbering in the hundreds kicked off a mini-festival of opera, ballet, and concert performances, all but the last housed at Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theater. Budapest can boast of a long and honorable operatic tradition, centered since 1884 around its imposing imperial Opera House. While that structure undergoes renovation, the company is undertaking a world tour, of which this engagement marked the start.
Visits of major opera companies to New York have been important events for decades, though hardly frequent ones, given the immense difficulties of scheduling, personnel, transport, and re-jiggering productions involved. Still, in the last half-century, New Yorkers in search of novel repertoire and locally unknown or under-known singers have welcomed visits by troupes from Rome and Hamburg (1960s), Moscow and Paris (1970s), Helsinki and London (1980s), and St. Petersburg (1990s and 2000s).
In operatic terms, the Budapest opera staked this appearance on two major rarities (in New York terms): Ferenc Erkel’s Bánk Bán (1861) and Karl Goldmark’s The Queen of Sheba (1875), given in its original German as Die Königin von Saba. While it was salutary to hear the Erkel, a historical farrago of a “national opera” perhaps best appreciated by those with a detailed knowledge of Hungarian history, it suffered in Attila Vidnyánszky’s cheap-looking, poorly blocked production. The Goldmark, however, proved highly enjoyable and far better supplied vocally.
The Koch offers a huge stage, many seats to fill, and less than ideal acoustics. The Budapest troupe revised and reduced their initial schedule; “unexpectedly high labor costs” were invoked, but such costs are weekly. The opening audience drew heavily on the Hungarian emigré, ex-pat, and diplomatic communities, as well as some celebrity guests like Plácido Domingo, who has longtime ties to the company.
Bánk Bán concerns the 13th-century murder by its eponymous hero (“bán” is a title similar to “viceroy”) of the wicked, foreign-born queen Gertrud, indulging her lecherous brother Ottó and her corrupt Meranian (i.e. Croatian) hangers-on while King Endre II valiantly fights Hungary’s enemies, ignorant of his people’s privations. The libretto’s combination of violent patriotism and xenophobia may read tellingly in the context of Hungary’s current Orbán regime, which — unlike some nationalist governments — avidly supports the arts, so that its policies extend to the State Opera, its repertoire, and personnel. Bánk Bán was — curiously but effectively — heard in an edition in which the title role, initially and usually awarded to a tenor, was reworked for the baritone Imre Palló (1891-1978), whose namesake son conducted at New York City Opera from 1974 to 1989.
The explanatory program essay obfuscated which edition (among the many Erkel and his heirs tweaked and those subsequently made) we were actually hearing. But the production’s Bánk Bán — Levente Molnár, whose Marcello and Belcore performances at the Met didn’t reveal the full current richness of his baritone — easily dominated the performance and vocally redeemed it from mediocrity. Molnár also gave the vacillating hero (presented here with explicit links to Hamlet) a generous emotional presence. The only other fully satisfying singing came from Zsolt Haja, wielding a leaner but well-projected baritone as the malcontent noble Petur Bán (complete with a Meyerbeerian drinking song).
Two basses, the initially stiff but clearly gifted lyric bass Marcell Bakonyi as King Endre and the warm if diffuse-sounding István Rácz, in a moving turn as the warrior-cum-thief Tiborc, also proved acceptable. But tenor István Horváth sounded tight as Ottó and bass-baritone Antal Cseh as the moustache-twirling Iago figure Biberach was altogether unimpressive. More crucially, the two leading women could not do justice to their music. (Erkel, like Goldmark in Königin von Saba, drew on the Meyerbeerian example of one “Falcon” and one high coloratura soprano.)
As Bánk’s wife Melinda — traduced by Ottó with Gertrud’s connivance — the pretty Zita Szemere acted well but revealed a glassy, hard tone, occasionally very appealing in individual notes but rarely joining them in legato phrases and all too frequently diverging from pitch. She may have been beset by nerves, but I’ve rarely heard such an out-of-tune performance. In an overlong Mad Scene, Szemere showed good staccatos but negligible ability to trill. Judit Németh (Gertrud) has had a substantial career. As a rising contralto, she sang Baroque music and roles like Mozart’s Annio before shifting to heavier, higher repertoire, including Ortrud and Kundry at Bayreuth. Here, she looked handsomely imposing but her vocal means seemed simply gone: virtually no tone at the bottom and harshness up above.
After a languid start in Act One, Balázs Kocsár made Erkel’s skillfully orchestrated if not always judiciously paced music sound attractive. The orchestral forces were quite impressive, including an onstage solo viola (the eloquent Veronika Botos) in an affecting duet between Bánk and Melinda, plus an atmospheric cimbalom. Erkel’s most interesting efforts are the duet scenes and concerted ensembles. Supertitles were projected clearly in both English and Magyar. However, the awkward English translations had seemingly been done — as Gore Vidal once said of Cinecittà screenplays — “by someone’s Finnish au pair.”
Die Königin von Saba had a successful world premiere in Vienna. Amalie Materna, who created the Zwischenfach title role, went on to originate Wagner’s Kundry – a part with similarly ambiguous tessitura – eight years later. The work was heard throughout Europe, finding particular favor in Italy. It had its North American premiere at the Metropolitan Opera in 1885 and was played by the company for 21 years. Its lavish sets and costumes were among those destroyed in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, in mid-Met tour. (As City Opera’s 1985 warehouse fire demonstrated, such events can change companies’ repertoires overnight.)
Many of the world’s Wagnerian singers appeared in the Met’s Königin performances. Lilli Lehmann initially sang Sulamit and later the Queen, and noted Wotans and Sachses sang the bulk of the Solomons. It was long overdue for revival here, and — largely well cast in a way the Erkel was not — proved to hold genuine merit and interest, generating generous applause that did not sound merely dutiful.
Veteran conductor János Kovács led a spirited, well-articulated performance of a score as steeped in pre-Ring Wagnerian tropes as is the libretto, a kind of Biblical variant of Tannhäuser, with the tenor warrior Assad caught between his fiancée Sulamit (daughter of the High Priest) and the exotic, pagan titular Queen, with whom he shared an anonymous dalliance when sent to fetch her in Lebanon. The self-sacrificing Sulamit, of course, redeems him as he dies. Csaba Káel directed effectively, though permitting the fine dancers saddled with cheesy choreography (the Queen’s retinue) too much distracting centrality. Éva Szendrényi furnished a workable “Nabucco set” — staircase, pillars, throne — with a beautiful royal-blue back curtain, and Anikó Németh’s principal costumes proved sumptuous. Here the subtitles were fine.
The singing was highly rewarding. Eszter Sümegi (Sulamith) unleashed a thrilling dramatic soprano, dispatching her difficult music with élan; Erika Gál made an aptly seductive Queen vocally as well as visually. Boldizsár László (Assad) couldn’t match that as an actor, but he sang the high-lying part (including a shortened version of the great aria “Magische töne”) with beauty of tone and technical facility. Dramatic baritone Zoltán Kelemen sang with authority as King Solomon (several attendees thought they were hearing Karajan’s Alberich, Zoltán Kelemen, who died in 1979). In the melismatic song of Astaroth, pleasant-voiced Eszter Zavaros lacked trills. Only bass Péter Fried (High Priest) sounded past his vocal best. This performance justified the Hungarian State Opera’s fine international reputation.
Critic and lecturer David Shengold resides in Philadelphia and New York City; he regularly writes for Opera News, Opera, Opéra Magazine, Opernwelt, Playbill and many other venues and has done program essays for companies including the Metropolitan, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Washington National Opera, ROH Covent Garden and the Wexford and Glyndebourne Festivals.
To read another CVNA review of the Hungarian State Opera production of Die Königen von Saba from 2015, go here.