Monday, 11 February 2019

Erkel - Bánk bán (Budapest 2017)

Ferenc Erkel - Bánk bán

Hungarian State Opera, Budapest - 2017

Balázs Kocsár, Attila Vidnyánszky, Marcell Bakonyi, Ildikó Komlósi, Levente Molnár, Zita Szemere, Péter Balczó, Kolos Kováts, Zsolt Haja, Lajos Geiger, Gergely Irlanda

OperaVision - 2018

There's certainly a lot of early Verdi in Bánk bán situations of romantic intrigue and betrayal set in a time of political upheaval, those operas of course reflecting the classic literary sources of the period that they are drawn from. In most cases the romantic melodrama takes precedence and overshadows what you might think are the rather more weighty matters of state and history, but as something of a national opera in Hungary, you sense that there's more justification and relevance to the personal situations that lead to rebellion against the state in Bánk bán.

If there's more historical and national relevance in Ferenc Erkel's account of this historical episode, well, we can presume that he didn't face the same pressures of censorship that Verdi was subjected to, and if the musical writing is a little more rich and varied in its musical expression than early Verdi, it should be noted that in 1861 when Bánk bán was composed, Verdi was at his peak writing Otello. Ferenc's opera still holds closely to the older formal conventions, with arias and interspersed with rousing drinking songs and rousing choruses expressing nationalistic sentiments.

As for romantic situations, well you wouldn't say that it's overblown, since that's pretty much a given, but there is a darker and more serious that develops in the court of King Endre II of Hungary around the year 1212. While Bánk is out fighting the country's wars, his wife Melinda is having to fight off the attentions of Ottó, the brother of Queen Gertrud. For his own evil ends, the courtier Biberach tells Melinda that Ottó's infatuation is only a ploy to test the fidelity of the Hungarian women. With the aid of a few potions however, he permits Otto to have his wicked way with her.

Verdi might have been writing Otello at the time, but Bánk bán's reaction when his informed of what he believes is his wife's betrayal is no less charged with thoughts of anger and revenge than the Moor, nor is Melinda's despair at what has occurred any deeper than Desdemona. But there is very much a political and national undercurrent to this situation that gives a deeper dimension to the drama. Even though it was a ploy, the test of Melinda's fidelity stands as a test of the nature of the fidelity and integrity of the Hungarian people, and it has been bitterly betrayed by, well, not to put to fine a point on it, by corrupt foreigners.

Gertrud and her brother Otto are Meranians (Germans), who have married into the Royal family, and they have been abusing their power, granting favours to friends and family while the ordinary people of Hungary have been suffering and starving. Bánk bán - a bán was a provincial governor answerable to the king - has been out fighting for his land while his family at home has been humiliated, and that cuts deeper than mere jealousy or betrayal. It's not a romantic rival that Bánk sets himself against, but a rival that threatens the rule of his country. As Bánk puts it, his only wish is that his "sacred homeland and good name remain unstained", but both are suffering while he hesitates over what action to take. "A pall hangs over my country and my honour is gone".

His big aria where he steels his resolve ends with the emotional declaration "It's beautiful to live and die for you, my sacred home, Hungary!" It doesn't get any more direct than that in terms of recognising where his true priorities lie, or rather the wonder and greatness of Bánk bán is that does actually does get even more direct than that. Having been driven to such lengths - the music and dramatic progress fully justifying his rage - Bánk confronts the queen in one of the most charged episodes I've experienced in any opera. Just for the gravity of the situation, for the impertinence of Bánk ban threatening to usurp the throne for the sake of the suffering people of his land, for the defiant stance of Gertrud before he actually kills her, aware of the consequences, it's a stunning scene.

The opera doesn't leave it there of course, but it also has the terrible fate of Melinda to consider, it has the king's rage to contend with, there are stirrings of rebellion that have been given voice by Bánk's actions, the people fed up with the abuses of the Meranians, and all of these scenes are given great musical and dramatic drive. They are performed as such also by the cast with the principal cast all demonstrating the kind of commitment and passion that is usually reserved for only the most sacred devotions, and well, what is a national opera but a kind of sacred art, and who else but the composer of Hungary's national anthem to bring it to those heights?

Attila Vidnyánszky's production of Bánk bán for the Hungarian State Opera in Budapest is excellent, if a little rough around the edges. The set designs by Oleksandr Bilozub strike a good balance between semi-period recreation of the costumes and more modern presentation in terms of using platforms and screens. A platform extends the stage out around the orchestra to give additional space for movement, but also to relate the drama more closely with the music and bring it all closer to the audience. Some of the blocking and choreography is a little random and awkward in places, as if performers have been left to fend for themselves, particularly with the entrances and exits. It's wonderfully atmospheric however, capturing all the passion, charge and drama that conductor Balázs Kocsár brings out of the orchestra.

Links: Hungarian State Opera, OperaVision