Best Ever Magic Flute in Budapest

W.A. Mozart, The Magic Flute: Vígszínház (Comedy Theater), Budapest 14.5.11 (BM)


Conductor: Géza Török
Director: László Marton
Set Designer: Michael Levine
Costume Designer: Mari Benedek
Lighting: János Horinka
Choreographer: Ádám Horgas
Chorus Master: Máté Szabó Sipos

Sarastro: László Szvétek
Tamino: Zoltán Nyári
Queen of the Night: Judit Lőrincz
Pamina: Gabriella Fodor
1st Lady: Beatrix Fodor
2nd Lady: Krisztina Simon
3rd Lady: Erika Gál
Orator: Lajos Miller
1st Priest: Gergely Boncsér
2nd Priest: Tamás Clementis
Papageno: Csaba Szegedi
Papagena: Kinga Kriszta
Monostatos: Csaba Debreczeni

Budapest’s Vígszínház opened its doors to the public in 1896. Gemlike, it twinkles with just a tiny, playful anticipation of Art Nouveau, and is arguably the city’s most beautiful theater, built by the famous Austrian-Prussian architects Fellner and Helmer, who created almost 50 such dazzling buildings across Central and Eastern Europe, from Odessa to Prague  – and from Vienna to Budapest. As I sat with my eyes closed in the left corner seat in the front row of the beautiful auditorium, wondering what it is about the overture of this opera that makes it so thrilling no matter how often it is played – magic? – I was startled by a little boy climbing over me and up on to the stage, where he promptly disappeared behind the curtains with the other two Genii.

These were soon opened to reveal Tamino writhing on his bed in the middle of a nightmare – for once, there was no dragon on stilts! And this was only the first of the many ingenious ideas László Marton brought to his staging, reflecting an unparalleled blend of the ethereal magic of fairy tales with a deep and earth-bound humanity, the very core of this work. A flying carpet dominates the stage from a variety of angles, Tamino receives Pamina’s portrait as a text message, one of the three ladies calls him on his cell phone to announce the arrival of the Queen of the Night and Papageno explains the whereabouts of Sarastro’s kingdom with the help of google maps. And yet, far from being cheap gimmicks, these and so many other fresh ideas bring the meaning of the many psychological facets of this work home to a contemporary audience, without lecturing them on concepts such as split identities, Elektra or Oedipus complexes (indeed, a lot of action takes place on a center-stage bed, but none of it is gratuitous), the suggestive power of dreams – and ultimately of music. Mozart and his librettist Schikaneder, as genuine free-masons, wrote Die Zauberflöte in German, as opposed to the customary language of opera of their day, which was of course Italian, so that it could be understood by ordinary people. And what a treat, even for those of us who understood not a word of the local language, to hear the performers speaking and singing in their native Hungarian (rather than mangled German, as is so often the rule), giving them the freedom to actually act their part, not just sing their roles.

All of the principles were in excellent voice and such a joy to listen to and watch that it is difficult to single out individual artists for praise. Besides, this is unquestionably one of the many strengths of the Hungarian National Opera Company: they do outstanding ensemble work. Having said that, Zoltán Nyári’s Tamino was confident and mellifluous, outdone only by his Pamina, sung by Gabriella Fodor with her soprano of beautiful hues and phrasing of great musicality. László Szvétek’s Sarastro was also striking, singing richly across the entire range his part requires, and Csaba Szegedi’s baritone may have been of the lighter kind, but he put it to use with great agility in the role of Papageno and topped this off with some engaging moves on stage. What with a first-rate chorus – who initially appear in hooded black jumpsuits, but later on become members of a mock audience sitting opposite the real one at the back of the stage – and an orchestra sounding much richer than the reduced number of musicians in the theater’s rather small pit, a few minor mishaps on the part of one of the Three Ladies or the Genii – and what luck that the latter were not sung by adults! – did not detract from the overall result in the least.

Although on a school night, the performance was almost sold out and there were quite a few children in the audience, underscoring the whole point of this opera, which is a tale for all of humankind, young and old.

No wonder László Marton (who has incidentally also been artistic director of the Vígszínház for many years) is so popular at home and abroad, a director who made a name for himself with the likes of Chekhov, Molière and Shakespeare and has now applied his art to opera with enormous ease – an accomplishment not to be taken for granted. This production of The Magic Flute is momentous, but at the same time free of all manner of sentimentality and cliché. All in all, it is one of the best, if not the best I have ever seen – and I have seen a few. Let’s hope it will be back in Budapest next season, and that it will perhaps even travel elsewhere, too!

Bettina Mara