Franz Liszt Goes To Heaven in Budapest

Gyula Fekete, Excelsior! Franz Liszt Goes To Heaven: Hungarian State Opera, Thália Theater, Budapest 20.5.2011 (BM)

Composer: Gyula Fekete
Librettist: András Papp
Director and Set Designer: Péter Gothár
Costumes: Nóra Bujdosó
Lighting: József Pető
Conductor: Gergely Kesselyák

Ferenc Liszt: Attila Fekete
The Old Liszt (spoken role): Tamás Fodor
Princess Carolyne: Viktória Mester
Saint Elizabeth of Hungary: Ingrid Kertesi
Cardinal Hohenlohe: Annamária Kovács
Pius IX: Péter Bárány
Cosima von Bülow: Tünde Frankó
Richard Wagner: András Káldi Kiss
Spiridion, Liszt’s valet: Tivadar Kissi

Production Photo ©Attila Juhász

Nagymező street in the heart of downtown Budapest is sometimes very aptly referred to as the Hungarian Broadway – apt not only because it is indeed very wide and its name literally means ‘large field’, but also because it is filled with restaurants frequented by actors and artists of all kinds, and of course with theaters, one of which is the beautiful Thália Theatre with its striking green entrance (right next to the even lovelier Mai Manó House, home of Budapest’s Museum of Photography). It is one of the auxiliary venues for smaller-scale Hungarian State Opera productions, and this spring it welcomed the world premiere of Gyula Fekete’s new “semi-serious opera”, commissioned on the occasion of the current Liszt bicentenary.

The plot, according to the English synopsis I had been able to find, revolves around Liszt’s pending wedding to Carolyne and the Pope’s decision to prevent it – as a result of intrigues – and the parallel story of Liszt’s daughter Cosima and his colleague Wagner, another couple seeking a father’s blessing to sanction their union.

This sounded sufficiently intriguing to give the performance a shot despite the language barrier involved, and indeed as I arrived at the Thália and was shown to a seat behind what turned out to be the back of a circular stage (or to be more accurate: a square platform with a space in the middle for the orchestra), things seemed to be getting off to a good start in an unconventional setting.

Unfortunately the first act left me a little puzzled, although during the interval I was able to study the program and at least figure out who was who based on the photographs of the artists, since it turned out that there was also a Cardinal involved in the storyline, as well as a Saint in street clothes whom I had mistakenly believed to be Cosima at first, not to mention a the valet and two Liszt personas.

The only reason I went back in for the second part was that the music was so appealing. An enthralling mix of romantic echoes of the 19th century period Liszt himself composed in, spruced up with contemporary elements and some very effectual use of the wind instruments – fortunately the ensemble had some pretty nifty trumpeters -, it was quite fascinating to the ear, and the singers were also excellent, especially Viktoria Mester, the expressive mezzo who was a forceful Carolyne and tenor Attila Fekete as Liszt (although unfortunately, by no fault of his own, his rather round face and glasses made him look much more like Franz Schubert than the composer he was portraying).

My perseverance was richly rewarded, since the second act included a brilliant take-off on Bellini’s “Casta Diva”, sung by counter-tenor Péter Bárány as Pius IX, as he was rolled in on Péter Gothár’s idea of a 19th century pope-mobile (a package stacker pushed backwards?) – one of the not so serious components of this semi-serious piece, another being the Leporello-like character of the valet Spiridion. Another highlight was the moving a capella chorus sung by the entire cast near the end, as Liszt, now an Abbot, moves towards spiritual transcendence and harmony, after having been forced to forgo the opportunity to conform to society by means of marriage .

One of the aspects that make this opera very interesting is the way in which it focuses on the dual nature of Liszt’s personality, who was a great artist, but also very human in that he loved the simple pleasures in life as much as his art.

According to librettist András Papp, it is not about the famous composer and virtuoso, but rather about an “ordinary man who makes a decision at a critical point in his life. It could be anyone, but what happens could only have happened to Liszt”, who, we are told, was a great man on account of his humanity, not his musical genius.

Another good selling point for this production is that involves the audience in its powerful music, making them almost physically part of the performance by dispensing with the traditional apron stage and orchestra pit set-up. Tacking surtitles onto the surrounding mirrors is presumably not an option, so perhaps in future a more detailed account of the storyline in English would help those not fluent in Hungarian to follow, since this is most definitely an exportable show.

Bettina Mara