In a parlous age for the arts, the tradition of a great performing company going on tour has withered. The logistics alone are harrowing—transportation, lodging, visas, and publicity must all be arranged. Large sets, precious instruments, and intricate costumes must be hauled around. The prospect of making money from such an endeavor would frighten all but the most intrepid impresarios. Orchestras from other places keep up residencies of a few days at Carnegie Hall, and the New York Philharmonic makes the occasional foray abroad, but the Metropolitan Opera’s national tours to provincial American cities ceased thirty years ago. Regular visits to the United States by St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre came every few years after the fall of communism, but unhappy political, economic, and artistic realities have put a stop to them.
It was a considerable curiosity, then, that Hungary’s State Opera, rated the world’s busiest theater, invested $4 million in its first-ever tour to New York. Its residency of nearly two weeks brought opera, ballet, a gala concert, and 367 artists to the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center, once home to the all-but-extinguished New York City Opera and still home to the New York City Ballet. For many, the major question was, “Why?” Hungary’s principal opera house in Budapest opened in 1884, just one year after the original Met, but its companies have never before crossed the Atlantic. Budapest’s gorgeous opera house is undergoing an impressive renovation, however, and with almost a year left to go, its companies are underemployed at home.
It is hard to imagine that the message is to make earnest New Yorkers warm up to fascism. The most avant-garde selection, János Vajda’s Mario and the Magician (1988), adapts Thomas Mann’s 1929 story—arguably the most stridently anti-fascist work in the genre of short fiction.
Nevertheless, most American arts commentators could not resist responding to the news about the tour with cynical digs at Hungary’s current political complexion, which, under Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, is often described as “illiberal democracy” at best or “neo-fascism” at worst. Sending an impressive cultural tour to New York has struck the skeptical media as a propaganda ploy, a self-indulgent abuse of Hungary’s rich cultural heritage that would whitewash values that do not align with those of what remains of the European Union or, worse from their point of view, those of the American mainstream media. Much hooting has fallen on the visiting company’s recent decision to stage Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess with an all-white cast, perhaps the most atrocious imaginable violation of political correctness in the realm of American high culture today, though one might reasonably ask what the alternative would be in Hungary apart from blackface. (Reportedly, blackface was used when the opera was staged in Budapest in the 1970s, back when the mainstream media’s ideological confederates still ran the place). Critics have also chided the company for canceling about one-third of its scheduled performances of the musical Billy Elliot after an ultra-right-wing journalist criticized that work’s gay themes. But they usually fail to mention that the reduced run was caused by poor ticket sales rather than by official homophobia, and they miss the point that the principal state theater of Orbán’s Hungary freely staged the work in the first place. Hardly anyone has mentioned that the lionized superstar tenor, conductor, and arts administrator Plácido Domingo proudly serves as the tour’s official patron and gushes in a page-long program note about his own reception in Hungary.
In the program under review here, it is hard to imagine that the intended message is to make earnest New Yorkers warm up to fascism. Its most avant-garde selection, János Vajda’s short opera Mario and the Magician (1988), adapts Thomas Mann’s 1929 story of the same name—arguably the most stridently anti-fascist work in the genre of short fiction. The unappetizingly named magician Cipolla (hint: “cipolla” is Italian for “onion”) uses his wiles to manipulate the behavior of his mesmerized audience in a metaphor for the seductive politics of Italian fascism then perturbing Mann with its rising popularity in his native Germany. The spell is broken when the student Mario, a speaking role in Vajda’s opera, guns down the maniacal magician, here steadily sung by András Palerdi. A near-contemporary work laced with themes evoking 1920s jazz, it served as an appealing introduction to its older pairing, Béla Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle (1918), in the current version of which Palerdi also took the title role with commanding authority. A searing psychological exploration of the fairy tale that gives the work its title, in which the eponymous ruler’s untrusting new wife, Judith, asks too many probing questions and ends up behind a locked door with his previous wives, the director Péter Galambos reimagined the story as an episode in Bartók’s own life. Instead of the keys to doors guarding the ruler’s torture chamber, armory, garden, and so on, Bluebeard hands Judith books containing the scores of his music, a more symbolic route to his soul. The veteran mezzo Ildikó Komlósi captured Judith’s affecting insecurity in a true vocal triumph.
The longer operas also evoked Hungary’s storied culture far more than its contemporary politics. Ferenc Erkel’s Bánk bán (The Viceroy Bank) has reigned as the country’s national opera ever since its premiere in 1861, whether the government was royal, authoritarian, fascist, communist, or democratic. The plot is hardly one of lavish praise for autocratic rule, for which one should look to operatic traditions further east. Bánk, who exercises authority in the name of the thirteenth-century King Andrew II, is divided between his loyalty to the ruler and a virtually Shakespearean conscience that demands he do his best for his country when that ruler is less than ideal. Outraged by the seduction of his wife by the king’s swaggering brother-in-law and by the general decline in national conditions, he commits regicide, murdering the cruel Queen Gertrud and owning up to the crime, only to commit suicide after learning that his wayward wife and their innocent son have drowned in a storm before the king can administer justice. The title character is the dream role for all Hungarian bass-baritones, much as Boris Godunov is for their Russian counterparts, and Levente Molnár, no stranger to Lincoln Center in recent seasons, captured it with intensity. The part’s signature aria, a rousing hymn to Bánk’s troubled homeland, drew a well-deserved standing ovation. Zita Szemere sang convincingly as his tortured wife, and Judit Németh was a truly vicious Gertrud.
In a more fantastic realm, Karl (Károly) Goldmark’s rarely performed The Queen of Sheba, better known under its German title, Die Königin von Saba, claims as a welcome part of the national heritage the work of Goldmark, a German-speaking Jewish son of a Budapest cantor who did his best work in Vienna. Inspired by a colleague’s praise for the beauty of one of Goldmark’s voice students—a comment that would have him dragged before some horrid Title IX panel if uttered in American academia today—the plot is a sort of reversal of Verdi’s Aida, making the title role a jealous mezzo with a realistic chance of getting the guy. Dating from 1875 and not heard in New York since 1906, the opera suffered the fate of a late entry into an already crowded field of Biblically inspired works. Its musical and dramatic style borrows heavily from Wagner and Meyerbeer as well as from Verdi, and it even features the quintessential Romantic-opera cliché of a ruined wedding in the second act, followed by a Tristan-like duet. It is hard to like the callow tenor lead, Assad, who jilts his naive fiancée, Sulamith, for Her Majesty, but Boldizsár László and Eszter Sümegi brought heroic, if not exactly Wagnerian, dimensions to their roles. Erika Gál’s Queen of Sheba was rough around the edges and strident in the upper register, but the character is so far from admirable that her performance seemed to fit. Like Bánk bán’s director Attila Vidnyánsky, Sheba’sdirector Csaba Káel favored a traditional approach, but he was not afraid to liven up the work with an entrance tableau for the Queen featuring dancers in fetish costumes. The finale, which involves Assad’s death in a sandstorm after he is banished to the desert—essentially for being a jerk—combined orchestral storm music with projection and lighting effects that handily substituted for dumping ten tons of sand on the tenor.
The conductor Balázs Kocsár admirably led Bánk bán and the double bill, while János Kovács dealt well with the stylistic kaleidoscope of The Queen of Sheba. The Hungarian State Opera Orchestra and Chorus delivered splendid performances that rivaled the Met on its best days, with impressive help from the ballet artists. As Wagner wrote, “Only art matters here.”