Hunyadi László – Opera in four Acts to a libretto by Béni Egressy, based on the play Két László [sung in Hungarian with surtitles in English]
King László V – Dániel Patky
Regent Ulrik Cillei – András Palerdi
Erzsébet Szilágyi – Klára Kolonits
László Hunyadi – Szabolcs Brickner
Mátyás Hunyadi – Gabriella Balga
Miklós Gara – Gábor Bretz
Mária Gara – Erika Miklösa
Rozgonyi – Attila Erdös
The Hungarian National Ballet
Students of the Hungarian National Ballet Institute
The Hungarian State Opera Chorus
The Hungarian State Opera Orchestra
Szilveszter Ókovács – Production
Krisztina Lisztopád – Set & co-Costume Designer
Brigitte Reiffenstuel – co-Costume Designer
Tamás Solymosi – Choreographer
Reviewed by: G. J. Dowler
Reviewed: 16 March, 2022
Venue: Hungarian State Opera House, Budapest
Ferenc Erkel, virtually unknown outside Hungary, stands proud in the nation’s musical history as the composer of the national anthem and several nationalist operas. Bank Bán is perhaps his most famous, but Hunyadi László is a work often performed on and around the national holiday of 15th March which commemorates the 1848 revolution against Austrian rule. The tale of the betrayal and eventual execution of László, elder son of the national warrior hero János, it is constructed very much in the musical fashion of the time – premiered in 1844, Erkel was influenced by French opera (Auber in particular) and also German Romantic works such as those by Weber.
Interwoven are the folk tunes of his native land, such as the verbunkos, and the cadences of Hungarian popular music. What he created was in essence the first Hungarian opera and in so doing stands alongside Moniuszko in Poland, Smetana in Bohemia and Glinka in Russia in terms of establishing a national voice.
The Hungarian National Opera celebrates its return to the much-loved Operahaz, after some years away. In that time, the building has been completely updated in terms of stage machinery and the prerequisites of modern opera and ballet production while the front of house areas including the auditorium have been restored to their full 1884 glory, including an orchestra pit now returned to its original, larger size. The house is intimate at 1,000 seats and much care has been taken with the acoustic which is extremely direct – sound envelops the audience, the textures of the orchestral sections are clearly discernible while melding into a satisfying whole.
Music Director Balázs Kocsár has worked hard to return the score to close to that of 1844 while retaining some later additions by Erkel himself; the idea was to restore much that was cut in a 1935 performing edition which became the norm until now. General Director Szilveszter Ókovács directs the production and has chosen to set the work in the period of its narrative (mid-1450s) with semi-realistic depictions of castles and interiors and unashamedly period costumes. Performed on the Hungarian national holiday, Hunyadi resonated strongly with the audience for whom the overt patriotism and repeated call to arms would be a tad uncomfortable for non- domestic audience members. Ókovács places the figure of László Hunyadi’s younger brother at the centre of his production; well-acted by a young boy and impressively sung in a variety of guises by Gabriella Balga, it is none other than Mátyás, better known in English as Matthias, who became one if Hungary’s greatest kings. The character is present throughout the betrayals of his elder sibling and the opera ends not only with the latter’s beheading but also the rise of the former as a man and monarch.
The company boasts impressive singers and especial mention should go to the male chorus whose full-throated rendition of their extensive Act I music as followers of László Hunyadi shook away any cobwebs and filled the theatre. In the title role Szabolcs Brickner, possessor of a lyric tenor with an heroic ping; he is a sensitive musician and displayed intelligent phrasing and secure tone throughout his range, nowhere more so than in his final Act lament, a moment of introspection amid the heightened emotions and extreme actions around him. His ultimate nemesis was Gábor Bretz’s evil Miklós Gara who deployed a vibrantly healthy bass in all his machinations; he is a fine actor too, so what could easily have been stock characterisation and recourse to melodrama was in fact chilling. In some fine acting both physical and vocal, Dániel Patky triumphed as the thoroughly unlikeable King László V, whose moral weakness and pathetic suggestibility were unflinchingly portrayed. Vocally, his tenor is not that of a hero, but the role, certainly as Patky gave it was far more than that of a comprimario.
The influence of Italian bel canto and French grand opera is most apparent on Erkel’s writing for the female characters. Erika Miklösa as Mária Gara, László H’s betrothed and the object of László roi’s desire, possesses a full, rich soprano with an extended top and evident facility in ornamentation and coloratura. Her music is more than an excuse for pretty singing and the role demands increasing emotion and vocal colouring as László H’s end draws near which Miklösa demonstrably achieved. The Hunyadi brothers’ mother Erzsébet Szilágyi is in many ways the opera’s central character, representing not only Hungarian motherhood but also the indomitable national spirit. Klára Kolonits is in many ways an old school opera diva with a dignified carriage and graceful acting and she easily dominates her every scene. She possesses an ample lyric voice and negotiated the vertiginous ornamentation of her opening aria’s cabaletta with considerable style and musical intelligence as well as bringing the intensity of resignation and defiance as her son is led to the scaffold
The Mágyar language is, one suspects, the main barrier for giving this work and indeed others by Erkel greater exposure. That is a pity, because in Hunyadi László, he shows himself not as a magpie of the styles and forms prevalent in European opera of the time but also a genuine innovator who, inspired by the desire of Hungarians of the time for autonomy, created a new genre, that of Hungarian opera. It was, after all, only four years after this opera’s premiere that Hungary made a bid for independence from the Hapsburgs, an attempt that was ultimately crushed but which is still celebrated as the nation’s Independence Day.