Hungarian State Opera (1 of 2)

Or should that be 2 of 3?  With snow drifting gently from the heavens, we hit the Hungarian State Opera for performances of Il Barbiere di Siviglia (matinee) and Tosca.

Before giving a run-down on them, I should say the the combined cost of tickets for those two performances and for this evening’s Eugene Onegin – for two people – was a rather pleasing £65.  One side stalls for Barbiere, one way up in the gods with side view (albeit front row) for Tosca, and we’re not quite sure where we’ll be for Onegin.  I mention this simply because it informed our expectations.  Having seen a rather lacklustre Don Giovanni in Kraków, an OK Ariadne in Leipzig and an intermittently-impressive Tannhäuser in Dresden, we didn’t expect great things of the Hungarians.  We were pleasantly shaken out of our prejudices…

The 11am performance of Barbiere was in less-than-ideal audience conditions.  The seats were half the price of an evening, and I suspect there was some sort of ‘scheme’ at work, because the place was full of children.  Being only a few rows from the front of the stalls, though, meant that distractions impacted less than they otherwise would have done.   Still, when the kids get out of their seat and trot down the aisle to stand by the rail separating us from the orchestra pit, you have to wonder…  Any momentary irritation was, however, balanced by the rueful thought that very few British families would think of trying to introduce their six year old kid to opera.  Oh well…

The production put me in mind of Jonathan Miller’s Mikado for ENO, with a dominant theme of beige sets, billowing white sheets and black iron fixtures.  It was an attractive scene, and efficiently handled for the most part, with steps sliding on and off and a stage-width railing rising and falling to create different spaces.  At times it all became a bit too frenetic and you just wanted it all to settle down, but overall an interesting low-intervention concept.  Costumes were brighter and more varied, though to no great effect.  Basilio was made to look like Willy Wonka, and Rosina’s outfit of white with fiery detailing suggested the character that we know as Rosina.  Others were less distinctive.

The cast – detailed here for as long as they keep the back calendar on line – was generally of a very good standard.  In particular, Viktória Mester was a very plausible Rosina, capturing the petulance and spark of the role very well and certainly having the physique du rôle.  Her voice was rich and secure, and if I missed the last ounce of sparkle from the coloratura, I told myself that not every Rosina is going to be a Joyce DiDonato.  It was an enjoyable portrayal.  Almaviva, Zoltán Megyesi, had a light voice, but again attractive.  Some of the more rapid passages tested its agility, but again an enjoyable performance.  Cessa di piu’ resistere was omitted, as was (or so I thought) some of the business of Bartolo handing Rosina the letter from the Count: even though we weren’t following with English translations, that made the whole thing momentarily confusing.

Sándor Egri’s Bartolo improved as things moved on, though one realised just what added dimension someone like Alessandro Corbelli brings to proceedings.  Kolos Kováts’ Basilio had a rich bass which disappeared whenever the pace picked up.  I could have done with a more vivid, larger-than-life Figaro than Zsolt Haja – he didn’t get near to that sense of him as being the ‘organiser’ behind the unfolding action.   His Largo al Factotum was also marred by a rather unnecessary bit of business with a microphone which he surreptitiously got out as he turned his back to the audience to do his ‘Figaro, Figaro’ routine, falsetto and all.  It was made doubly annoying by the loud humming noise that accompanied the microphone being turned on, which disappeared again when it was switched off and handed – secretively, but clumsily – to the prompter.

Conducting was Dénes István, and since there is no credit for the accompanist I think that was him too (but I couldn’t see to be sure).  The orchestra were having a high old time of it, aided by István’s insertion of odd snippets of other music into the rather impressionistic accompaniment to the recitatives.  I particularly caught the Habanera from Carmen when Figaro and the Count were discussing Rosina (in-joke about the singer’s forthcoming engagements, I wonder?) and the opening bars of Beethoven’s  moonlight sonata.  Entertaining, if a bit unnecessary to a good performance of Rossini, and at least the orchestra’s enjoyment provided the opportunity to see more Hungarians smiling and laughing in one place than I’ve seen anywhere else in Budapest so far.  A hospitable people, yes, but not one of the world’s great smiling races…

Then, after a trudge around in the snow, Tosca was upon us.  I think I’ve seen the Hungarian State Opera do Tosca before on one of those Ellen Kent ship-’em-over-sell-’em-cheap tours of the UK.  Based on the prejudices I’ve admitted to at the outset, I was expecting that Tosca was a resilient sort of a piece and that it would perhaps need to be.  I find myself imagining that the ‘shabby little shocker’ is the sort of piece that less well-resourced companies than Covent Garden – such as the Hungarian State Opera – can throw together as part of the repertory, confident in the knowledge that it will come off pretty well.  Well, actually, it came off damned well.  In fact, it was rather excellent.

I’m not going to claim the production to have been a thing of complexity and nuance.  (It was Tosca, for God’s sake.)  A basic backdrop of large marble/granite blocked walls served for the church, Scarpia’s rooms and the fateful parapet of the Castel Sant’ Angelo.  Within that, various arrangements of furniture and changes in angles of the walls provided for quite open spaces which allowed the drama to unfold efficiently.  A scaffold was provided for the painting in Act 1, a wall of sandbags against which to be executed in Act 3 complete with a couple of helpful steps up to the parapet, and an odd ill-assortment of furniture for Scarpia in Act 2.  He needed a new interior designer.  And yes, at the end of Act 3, from my vantage point high up on the side of the ‘third floor’, I did see Tosca bounce…

Tosca was Szilvia Rálik.  Hers was a powerful voice, initially a bit unwieldy, but once fully underway she seemed confident, powerful and steady.  For Vissi d’arte she demonstrated what a less full-on role might bring out, and she produced some very lovely singing indeed.  She was a very good actress, making the most of the fact that she really did look the part.  In fact, for both performances, the quality of dramatic engagement was the aspect which most pleasantly surprised us.  Here, there was no over-reliance on stand-and-deliver, this Tosca engaged in full on struggles with Scarpia, threw herself around the set with abandon and consistently addressed other characters rather than the conductor.  Impressive stuff, given the sort of  rehearsal times that I expect houses such as the State Opera can provide for singers.

István Kovácsházi’s Cavaradossi was not quite up to that mark.  A hefty tenor voice, he delivered the drama more effectively than the set-pieces, notably a rather uncomfortably-negotiated, choppy E lucevan le stelle.  Nonetheless, he  was powerful at moments such as ‘Vittoria’ in Act 2 and, indeed, when he and Rálik came together for the ‘a capella’ Trionfal, there was a part of me that wanted to lean over a say ‘oh shush a bit, we’re only 50 feet away…’

Of the main triumvirate, Scarpia was the least consistently impressive.  He seemed underpowered, although again if I reminded myself earlier that not every Rosina is a DiDonato, neither can every Scarpia be a Bryn Terfel.  It was for the most part efficiently portrayed, although he disappeared a bit in the Te Deum, and did have a tendency to talk at us through the ‘fourth wall’ rather too much so that it robbed the character of that introspective, simmering malice that the best Scarpias exhibit.  Things did warm up a bit in the big confrontation between him and Rálik, though I think that was mostly her work.  As she contemplated her choice, and noticed the knife that is the basis of her split-second decision, and again as she recoiled at what she had done, Rálik was at her best dramatically.  It was slightly marred by the most ineffectual murder-by-stabbing I’ve seen on the opera stage in a long while, Tosca jabbing at Scarpia as though she was piercing the film lid on her microwave meal, rather than plunging a knife into the chest of a sadist.  Ah well, you can’t have everything.

The conducting was down to Héja Domonkos and it was a full-blooded affair, just about perfectly paced and generally respectful to singers, except at very ‘big’ moments when they were let fly.  The opening and closing in particular were thunderous – there was no mistaking where we were headed from the outset.  The orchestra was very fine indeed, better than for Barbiere in which an odd set of percussion sounds had intruded, most particularly a triangle which sound like someone banging a crowbar on metal railings.  Puccini somehow sounded like it was a bit more ‘in their blood’ (is it that ‘serious’ thing again?!)  The only odd thing in Tosca was a bizarre addition (is it in the score?) of a set of three or four bells of various pitches tolling in an oddly distracting rhythm throughout the lead-up to E lucevan le stelle.

So, overall a Barbiere that was very creditable indeed and a Tosca which, to be frank, I’ve seen worse at Covent Garden.  Gheorghiu may have produced a more beautiful sound and may have been more accomplished at certain moments, but Rálik’s overall effect was far more in keeping with my take on the character.  And we won’t get started on my views on Nelly Miriciou’s last outing in the role; suffice to say, that I’d have preferred to have seen Rálik on the Covent Garden stage.

So, on to Eugene Onegin tonight, and I’m quite looking forward to it.  On one final note, I am wondering how the applause will be.  There is a distinctly muted quality to the audience’s response, both to individual singers’ ‘big numbers’ and to the overall performance, although the length of applause would suggest it is not a sign of lack of appreciation.  There is also a curious tendency which I can’t recall from any other opera house – and I certainly don’t understand –  to engage in an odd rhythmic clapping.  Most curious!

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