This performance of Bánk bán in Budapest’s Erkel Theatre will have sounded vaguely recognisable, at least in part, even to opera-goers unfamiliar with Hungarian composer Ferenc Erkel’s signature opera. The reason? Blocks of music sound like it comes from Verdi, others by Wagner. So, does Bánk bán lean too much on the compositional traditions of others? Far from it.

Erika Gál (Gertrud) and Gergely Boncsér (Otto)
© János Kummer | Hungarian State Opera

The first act is dominated by Italian elements made popular by Verdi, and in form and power the duets both between Bánk, the bán (viceroy) of Hungary and Melinda, his wife, or Queen Gertrud evoke the music dramas advocated by Wagner over what he considered Italian opera’s overt preoccupation with prettiness. But they remain Erkel’s own in tonality. And as the story moves from the court of the foreign queen to the Magyars suffering under her rule, so does the music to the melodies and rhythms of the verbunkos and other folk dance elements unique to Hungary, while passages for the cimbalom – a kind of dulcimer – and the haunting whisper of flutes evoke the loneliness of the puszta (the Hungarian plains). It is apt music for the alienation oft cited by Hungarian writers of an Asiatic folk alone in Europe.

With performances rare outside Hungary, the work itself is as lonely a presence in the opera world as are the Magyars in Europe. Yet the reasons are hard to pinpoint. The music can certainly stand on its own merits and nationalistic themes by Wagner, Verdi and others did not keep their works from worldwide popularity. Perhaps, the culprit is the notoriously difficult Magyar language, with its difficulties of rendering it into a foreign-language libretto that evokes its unique poetry.

Cseh Antal (Biberach) and István Kovácsházi (Bánk bán)
© János Kummer | Hungarian State Opera

Based loosely on real life events, the story itself is less unfamiliar, one of betrayal of the hero and his nation. Bánk returns from battle to learn that that the queen, Gertrud of Merano, has not only impoverished and humiliated its people but has abetted her brother’s efforts to seduce, and ultimately rape Melinda, Bánk’s virtuous wife. Bánk kills the queen, after which another Hungarian nobleman is mistakenly executed for the deed. Bánk confronts King Endre, now returned from the battlefield, to defiantly confess his crime and the reasons for it, thereby signing his own death warrant. But his actual punishment is far greater, the death of his wife and son after Melinda, in a fit of madness, rushes into the raging River Tisza, dragging their child with her.

Erkel's opera premiered in 1881, after Hungary had achieved near-equal status with Austria in the Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy. But it was composed during the final years of the preceding centuries of sometimes oppressive Austrian dominance. It remained deeply entrenched in the Magyar national conscience then, as well as now, with the resulting value placed on independence now exploited by nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to darkly warn that too close an alignment with European Union values present a danger to Hungary’s.

András Palerdi (Endre II)
© János Kummer | Hungarian State Opera

Politics aside, the performance at the Erkel Theater was a mixture of some shadow, but mostly light. Applause, first of all, for the Hungarian State Opera Orchestra and Chorus. The orchestra occasionally overpowered the principals, particularly in the first act, but this was less conductor Ádám Medveczky’s sin than that of some of the singers, who suffered projection problems once they moved away from the front of the stage. Medveczky’s conducting was virile or melancholy, lyric or proud, as dictated by the score, and his musicians rose to the occasion. Ditto for the chorus, whether at a musical whisper or full-throated crescendo.

István Kovácsházi was a convincing Bánk in both voice and acting. As Melinda, Orsolya Hajnalka Rőser impressed with her high-pitched coloratura theatrics in her prolonged mad scene. Also good were Mihály Kálmándy as Tiborc, Bánk’s peasant ally, András Palerdi as Endre II, and Antal Cseh as the lurking Biberach, who is to Bánk as Iago is to Othello.

Mihály Kálmándy (Tiborc) and Orsolya Hajnalka Rőse (Melinda)
© János Kummer | Hungarian State Opera

Erika Gál’s Gertrud projected a splendid dramatic presence as the ice queen with nothing but contempt for the folk she rules. But she had difficulties making herself heard above the orchestra and in ensemble in all but her highest registers. The singing of Zoltán Kelemen (Petur bán) lacked lustre. As Otto, Gertrud’s lecherous brother, Gergely Boncsér was more often seen than heard, his tenor too light to make much of an impression. The best that can be said for the set (Olekszander Bilozub) and direction (Attila Vidnyánszky) is that both were unobtrusive, except for the two instances where Bánk, on one knee contemplates a skull... Bánk, meet Hamlet.