Hungary Vajda, Mario and the Musician; Bartók, Bluebeard’s Castle: Hungarian State Opera, Gregory Vajda (conductor), Erkel Theatre, Budapest, 14.11.2013Mario and the Magician
Composer: János Vajda / Librettist: Gábor Bokkon
Cipolla: Gábor Bretz
Mario: Ervin Nagy, Donáth Szamosi
Mme Angolieri: Viktória Mester
Mr. Angolieri: András Hábetler
Man in Woollen Shirt: László Beöthy-Kiss
Gentleman from Rome: Zoltán Bátki Fazekas
Composer: Béla Bartók / Librettist: Béla Balázs
Bluebeard: Gábor Bretz
Judit: Viktória Mester
Director and Designer: Péter Galambos
Assistant Director: Erika Tóth
Costumes: Enikö Kárpáti
Choreographer: Csaba Solti
Projection Designer: Mária Merczel
After a grand evening of Hungarian opera extracts and televised attendant events, it was one of the stars of that evening, the home-grown world-class baritone Gábor Bretz, who took to the stage for the newly reopened Erkel’s first big production: a double bill of János Vajda’s Mario and the Magician and Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle (A Kécszakállú Herceg Vára), which with Kodály’s Háry János has almost matched the operas of Erkel as the centrepiece of the State Opera’s main repertoire.
It was a mixed bag. Thomas Mann’s long story or novella (Mario und der Zauberer, here Mario és a Varázsló) is quite gripping and mesmerising enough not to need any playing around with. Péter Galambos, who directed, seemed to have come up with as pointlessly finicky a production, rather in the German vein, as his awesomely claustrophobic and oppressive modern dress Bluebeard was superb. Actor Ervin Nagy, as a kind of white-clad Doppelgänger-Mario to singer Donáth Szamosi, had presence without really contributing anything salient. Though occasionally effective, the use of dominating back-proejctions enlarging or exaggerating the action onstage only drew attention to the visual and intellectual ineptitude.
Bretz, as Cipolla the trickster, was required to float around the stage in a long beard and dark gown, looking somewhere between Moses, Elijah and John the Baptist. The minor roles were strikingly well taken, and Domonkos Héja in the pit and the orchestra could do no wrong. Vajda’s is a superb score, full of haunting stuff and well-judged instrumentation: as electrifying, I would say, as Stephen Oliver’s opera on the same subject, and that is high praise indeed. But though the chorus found lots of quite well-effected specific nonsense to enact (so in a way this worked as a chorus-focused stagework) the silliness of the whole thing was mostly exasperating.
The impressive Vajda, born 1949 in Miskolc, has hopefully plenty of composition in him still, but must have seen it and – I hope – winced. With as acutely sinister a piece as this, and a singer of the calibre of Bretz (no problem with the main solols), it seemed more than a waste. I suppose the idea of comedy to precede the real tragedy, Bluebeard, may have gone through the production team’s mind.
And then came one of the finest productions of Bluebeard’s Castle I will ever hope to see, and hear. The cast is nothing without the orchestral colouring; the orchestra nothing without the two people aching their way towards disaster onstage; the one knowingly, the other like a blithe young girl, unwittingly. For this Gábor Bretz (Bluebeard) was joined by one of the Hungarian State Opera’s outstanding current performers, Viktória Mester (Judit).
Judit is like a little girl or boy of the very young age age when children ask endless exhausting questions. They will not let up. She must pry into every bit of her profoundly fond life partner’s life, as if not knowing or being privy will somehow leave her deficient, peeping into his school cupboard or games locker to find some concealed truth she feels pathologically driven to find out. Privacy goes out the window. She prises his doors off him almost as if she was removing his clothes one by one (there is a nicely done sexy bit midway through this reading); or as if the doors served to remove her own clothes, like seven veils, in the hope each one will make her more alluring.
Mester was absolutely brilliant at getting all this. The youth of the questioner, but also the adult presumption of her right to know, to debag him, to deprive him almost of his virility. It’s not unknown in normal life, which is partly why this is such a strikingly 20th century work, opening its own door to a new level of psychological drama in opera (best known in Britten, or Tippett, or Reimann). Mester pitches perfectly, hits those key notes in a way sets your spine shivering (though I thought Heja almost perversely hurried the greatest climax through too rapidly: come back János Ferencsik, or István Kertész. She also moves with terrifying subtlety, forever coming up with a new angle of nosy intrusion into Bretz’s very bosom or armpit or yes, thigh, so as to wheedle and win that next mysterious key.
But Bretz too moves extraordinarily: not nonchalantly, not troublously or ponderously, not shufflingly, yet somehow rightly. He makes the Erkel’s side stage his own: the way Galambos gets them circling, and crossing, and intermingling, distancing and closing, is masterly: and part of this excellence and extreme subtlety is also down to them. Bretz’s voice is to die for: I could make analogies with a Hampson (he has sung a lot in the States, notably Los Angeles); or many other top voices (Robert Merrill, Sherrill Milnes, and so on. He simply is absolute top drawer. Relaxed in the dressing room, he shows no arrogance, no grand inaccessibility, and an awareness that the better you are, the more you have to learn. It all showed in his performance.
The way he preserved Kékszakállú’s privacy, and in a thousand different ways made you feel it falling away from him, and the quiet pain of the acquiescing, knowing where it will lead: these were what made this a superlative performance. But it was there in the voice; the quiet aching, the repressed pain, the softening and unwinding as if maybe she won’t ask for the next one (as he suggests, before the last two): this is not just a fine big voice, an Escamillo or (as he sang at the Erkel’s opening Gala), or a Miklós Gára, the bullying Pizarro-Scarpia figure from Hunyadi László. It is a voice of a thousand colours and textures and gentlenesses; perhaps even – we shall see – one of the operatic voices of the century.
But the Director was the Designer too. The highest praise goes to a quite astonishing, disconcerting, alternately reassuring and spine-shivering set, using gauzes that shifted between the richest red-coloured book-lined library – almost like a secretarial office in Imre Steindl’s magnificent Hungarian Parliament itself (was this modestly regal Bluebeard, perhaps, a politician of note? – and strange, eerie revelations of the world behind the doors: a world of vast, lofty beauty, but also the danger a child might feel in a huge house.
Not all the revelations quite worked, or matched sufficiently Béla Balázs’s stupendous, Maeterlinck-like text; but the impact was nonetheless fabulous. It was if we were constantly being reminded that behind the world we see, are strange, beckoning others; or as if even as we live and breathe, there is another, conflicting self burrowing away inside us. This is very big thinking indeed: Carl Gustav Jung might have had something to say about this production.
But the intensity paid off: you could tell that Bretz and Mester had taken their cue. We were very, very involved; and very, very disquieted. That is what Bluebeard’s fastness is for. So a toast to Ókovács’s Hungarian State Opera, and Péter Galambos in particular. This double-bill started in a bit of a trough and ended up a match for any company in Europe.