Sunday 4 February 2024

Eötvös - Valuska (Budapest, 2023)

Péter Eötvös - Valuska

Hungarian State Opera, 2023

Kálmán Szennai, Bence Varga, Zsolt Haja, Tünde Szalontay, Adrienn Miksch, Tünde Szabóki, Mária Farkasréti, András Hábetler, Krisztián Cser, István Horváth, Balázs Papp, Lőrinc Kósa, András Kiss, János Szerekován, Zoltán Bátki Fazekas, Attila Erdős

OperaVision - 17th December 2023

I haven't read the Hungarian author László Krasznahorkai, but know of his work through the films of Béla Tarr, the Hungarian director who has adapted three of his works as Damnation (1988), Sátántangó (1995) and Werckmeister Harmonies (2000), all of them remarkable. The latter is based on the Krasznahorkai's 1989 work The Melancholy of Resistance. The film is a powerful piece of allegorical cinema, almost abstract and surreal, but at the same time finding a way to touch on the everyday experience of people in society in decline or indeed living in fear under a totalitarian regime.

As the preeminent Hungarian composer of the present day and now 80 year old veteran of contemporary music, it falls to Peter Eötvös to bring an opera adaptation of The Melancholy of Resistance to the stage as the opera, Valuska. Although he has composed 12 operas over the years, this is surprisingly his first in Hungarian. Anyone familiar with the composer will know that it is not likely to be a rich musical opera in the traditional style, but what it should be and what it is, like Tarr's Werckmeister Harmonies, is a fresh perspective on an enigmatic work that brings a new perspective and insight into what this extraordinary work is all about. And, in the process, lift it out of any specific time period and make it a work that can be endlessly revisited and reconsidered.

Certainly the themes in the film adaptation and the opera are similar, both evidently connecting with the original work's themes. There are differences of approach of course, and whereas Werckmeister Harmonies centred on the perspective of the learning impaired János Valuska, Eötvös - despite the opera's title - at least initially foregrounds the experience of his mother Piroshka Pflaum, sung here by the always wonderful Adrienn Miksch. Catching a train, she is appalled by the behaviour of those around her, feeling threatened by the uncouth behaviour particularly of men, but women also appear to behave in strange ways. She keeps hearing about and reading leaflet and posters advertising a travelling circus that is exhibiting the largest whale in the world and also promises a guest appearance from "the Prince", a mysterious enigmatic figure, who clearly demands respect even if his powers are unknown.

Piroska's friend Tünde (Tünde Szabóki) has been appointed mayor of the town. One of her first actions is to engage circus as part of her campaign to win over the people, but she feels that her "Well-Groomed Garden, Tidy House" movement is in trouble and needs the help of a learned gentleman. That person is her husband the Professor but he cannot be convinced. Tünde will have to rely on Piroska’s son János to convince him, even though the young man is regarded as a half-wit in the town. Even his mother considers her son a degenerate, presumably for spending so much time drinking in the local pub.

He may be considered an idiot but János (Zsolt Haja) has a particular talent for astronomy and a seemingly unique awareness of the position of man within the cosmos. He often demonstrates the movements of heavenly bodies into the phenomenon of a solar eclipse on demand for the drunken revelers in the pub as his party piece. By the same token, János is entranced at the circus by the majesty of the whale, this magnificent creature from nature that perhaps represents God or the centre of the universe, while the other townsfolk are all in thrall to the mystery of the Prince, a circus freak who has taken on a dangerous cult of personality, his presence is rumoured to cause unrest wherever he appears.

In contrast to Béla Tarr's stark monochrome realism, the staging of Valuska by director Bence Varga emphasises a more comic-absurd perspective of the work, with grotesque cartoonish figures with extra padding added. Tarr's film version of the story famously runs to just 39 long entrancing shots, while Eötvös's opera condenses this down to just 12 scenes. The librettist Kinga Keszthelyi introduces a narrator to preserve significant lines from Krasznahorkai's text, but Tarr manages to do just as effectively without. What is common to both works is the emphasis on a world running down, disappearing into absurdity, triviality and imbalance or disregard for what is important. Who needs a Judgement Day, the Professor observes when the world is in terminal decline and order will break down eventually of its own accord? That day may not be far away.

The decline into disorder might be less grandly cinematic in Eötvös's opera, there might have more of an edge of absurd dark humour but Valuska nonetheless captures other qualities of what is clearly a significant work. You can see it as a meditation of our place in an entropic universe or a depiction of people living in fear in Hungarian society during the Communist years, watching everything fall into ruin, being afraid to walk the streets, expecting danger on every corner, waiting for the regime of power to crumble and the next totalitarian leader to take over. Or you take it at face value as the disturbed perspective of a lunatic or an innocent who sees the world around him differently from everyone else, valuing nature and the cosmos above fear and superstition, who becomes a danger for not fitting in.

As the title of the film adaptation suggested, the idea of order in harmonic principles and the question of conforming to those principles or breaking them down and establishing a new order can be seen as central to the themes of the work, and that is presumably of interest to Péter Eötvös in his musical composition. The music here feels more like theatrical music rather than grand opera using a medium chamber ensemble. Although Eötvös provides textures of a wide range of sounds, he rarely makes use of all the instruments at once. The music mostly consists of short phrases of mainly woodwind and percussion, but there are long sinuous lines and string accompaniment for monologues. When combined with the dark absurdity of a corrupt world and a victimised innocent among it, the textural qualities of Valuska combine to have a quality not unlike Berg's Wozzeck. Valuska however has its own disturbing logic and view of the world, the music an essential element that contributes to the sense of underlying menace. The vocal writing for the opera is wonderful and the singing performances at the world premiere here are magnificent.

External links: OperaVision, Hungarian State Opera

Photos: © Nagy Attila