Hungarian State Opera 2 of 2

Well, Sunday evening didn’t go quite according to plan.  Fresh from penning (typing) the last entry, we pottered about a bit, had a lie down to get a bit of energy and headed out for something to eat.  Unfortunately, the day’s exertions – if you can call them that – must have taken their toll, because we arrived at the opera house already quite tired.

There is a possibility that this influenced our enjoyment of Eugene Onegin.  We had good seats – for £10, very good seats – in the central block of the balcony.  If you are booking for the Hungarian State Opera House and are curious about the cheaper seats, I’d recommend that central block, but advise steering clear of the side views which are quite precipitous as well as becoming quite an extreme angle to the stage quite quickly as you progress around the horseshoe.  The sound from these seats was excellent and, indeed, had a most curious effect whereby for parts of the performance I genuinely thought the singers were amplified.  I think this was the effect of the deep proscenium which ensures that sound is channelled firmly in the audience’s direction, but anyway it was a good spot acoustically.

So, tiredness intervened towards the end of act 1 and we left it there, trouping off to our hotel for an early(ish) night so that we could be up promptly for a full day’s sightseeing which, on Sunday had been marred by rather excessive snowfall.

If it didn’t quite hit the heights of Saturday’s performances, it was still of a very good standard and quite thought-provoking.  The orchestra were once again on good form, with a relaxed but idiomatic performance led by Kovács János.  The singers were all vocally vivid presences, even if we could have hoped for a bit more fully projected drama.  In particular, Gabriella Létay Kiss as Tatyana had a rich voice which was slightly less powerful than her colleagues on stage but was consistently attractive.  It may have been the production but it became a little difficult to distinguish Tatyana, Olga and Madame Larina at times, all of them having a similar rich tone.

The production was odd, but not in a way that irritated.  The scene opened on a large tilted square which was green/blue and could therefore be lit green to bring out a vivid summer meadow or flooded with a silvery-blue light to bring an interesting hue to the nocturnal scenes.  The square rotated periodically – and noisily – to change the angles and perspectives as scenes changed or evolved.  Down the left hand side from front to back were a stack of nearly stage-height wooden constructions which looked like tall windows with a wooden panel set in them to waist height.  The ambition of the production was marked at the outset when Tatyana and Olga started their opening duet whilst standing in one of these contraptions each and being flown from side to side and up and down across the stage.  It was most odd and, after a while, slightly distracting:  I’m guessing that, as they are singing about flights of romance from inside the house, it is representing some form of dreamy flight, but it was rather more clunky than that.  The scene had opened with people in white laying on the grass reading books.  Tatyana was in white, Olga in a rather tarty red plastic affair.  It soon became apparent that the colours were significant.  All of the family had red as their theme, plus Lensky; Tatyana and Onegin were in white along with what turned out to be this extra chorus of romantic ‘idealists’ (or so I interpreted it).  The chorus had rather fetching dungarees.  When they came on for their first choral number, some business was initiated with the white-dressed idealists where they were partially stripped (revealing a male complement that made me regret leaving my binoculars at home) and they went through some sort of olive/grape harvest ritual.  Not sure if they have grapes or olives near St Petersburg, do they?  Oh well.

Tatyana’s letter scene was curiously lacking in impact, I think because there felt like there was an air of routine about it.  It could, of course, have been our tiredness, but it seemed to lack a bit of light and shade which gives this scene its power.  The final confrontation with Onegin – which followed some more whizzing about of the window frames – was rather underpowered as well.  Everyone was singing with great gusto but, in the absence of a translation and not knowing the piece well enough, I kept looking out for that moment when he is haughty and overbearing with her and which is so significant to the later drama, but it seemed to go by without much impact.  I think it was this that set the seal on the evening for me, and I couldn’t summon the energy needed to see out the remainder based on how this crucial scene had been handled.  As he left her, Georgian-style internal window frames noisily scrolled up the oversized windows and they flew about some more, leaving me slightly worried they were going to hit someone.

What was interesting about this whole endeavour, though, is that it was clearly a production of some ambition, with some interesting ideas about youth, idealism, workers, harvest rituals and so forth.  There was no skimping on the kinds of machinery or lighting employed to keep the production moving or the complexity of what it was being asked to do.  Strong voices throughout the range, an orchestra on good form and a solid interpretation all marked a performance that was definitely of an international standard even if it remained just a little rough around the edges.  I’ve been musing since my last post about whether the comments that I made about my expectations were a bit unfair on the Hungarian State Opera and I should have been more open-minded to begin with.  However, I look back on productions that have toured to the UK by companies such as the Chisinau opera of Moldova, or performances that I have been to in Kraków, Prague or, indeed, Dresden or Leipzig and I do think that they had a roughness around the edges – even Dresden – that marked a notable difference to the UK.  I have noted that, compared to some of those other houses, the Budapest company seem to have longer runs of productions, more in line with Covent Garden’s approach than, say, Dresden where there are three performances of Rosenkavalier in March and then one in July.  Does this cause the difference?  Certainly there is the difference in money that is available to each company – Covent Garden’s numbers must be very many times the Hungarians’ available budget (even if their costs are as well).  But on either of these measures, why has the Hungarian State Opera confounded expectations?  In a city that takes music as seriously as Budapest seems to, perhaps everyone just puts 110% into the time available for rehearsal, preparation and creative planning.  Anyway, whatever the reason, a good (and artistically rewarding) time was had by all.  Want a reasonably priced but good quality opera getaway in Europe?  You could do far, far worse than Budapest.

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