Subject to many influences, from Goethe to 19th-century Russian literature (Gogol, Dostoevsky) to operas by Berlioz or Gounod, Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita is considered one of the greatest novels of the last hundred years. It is a work full of fantastic imagery and acerbic satire, deeply concerned with religious themes and moral conundrums as well as a biting critique of the Soviet ideology. Immensely complex, the novel has been subject to many attempts to bring some subset of its overlapping worlds to stage. A very recent one, Levente Gyöngyösi’s “opera-musical” has been given a fully staged online premiere by the Hungarian State Opera.

Orsolya Sáfár (Margarita) and Péter Balczó (The Master)
© Péter Rákossy | Hungarian State Opera

The libretto by Szabolcs Várady, based on a script by Róbert Bognár and András Schlanger, captures many of the important scenes in a novel that switches back and forth from 1930s Soviet Moscow to the Jerusalem of Jesus’ time. In its nearly three hour span, tableaux depicting the appearance of Woland, the foretold death of the writer Berlioz, the argument between Pontius Pilate and Caiaphas, the lunatic asylum, the Good Friday ball, or the flying away of the souls of Master and Margarita are all there. Nevertheless, there are important differences. Where Bulgakov’s chef d’oeuvre can be viewed as a Bildungsroman describing the evolution of a poet known as Bezdomny (“homeless”), here he is just a minor character. Where Margarita is introduced late in the novel, as the Master’s mistress, here she appears in the very first scene, taking notes at the Writers Guild hearing where Mikhail Masterov’s work Pontius Pilate is banned. In general, the love story between the Master and Margarita takes a much more important role in the opera’s storyline than in Bulgakov’s fiction, while the latter’s descriptions of daily life in Stalin’s Soviet Union are pretty much pushed aside as less suited for “grand spectacle”.

The Master and Margarita
© Péter Rákossy | Hungarian State Opera

Directed by Vajk Szente, with sets and costumes by Kentaur, A mester és Margarita is a spectacular extravaganza indeed. A stage with an occasionally rotating center is dominated by scaffolding that is reconfigured for each scene. The space is often crowded with multiple principal characters, choristers, dancers representing Jerusalemites in sandals or good Muscovite citizens in greyish suits (quite schematically choreographed by Lajos Péter Túri) and acrobats (directed by Tünde Vincze). Berlioz’ severed head is presented to anyone who wants to see it. Yeshua Ha-Notsri (Jesus of Nazareth) is suspended from the ceiling. Margarita flies on a broom. A huge crown of thorns, made of tubular bars screwed together, surrounds a remorseful Pontius Pilate…

Orsolya Sáfár (Margarita)
© Péter Rákossy | Hungarian State Opera

First presented in a concert version at the Bartók Plusz Operafestival at the National Theatre in Miskolc in 2017, Gyöngyösi’s opus is an unabashed musical potpourri. The composer himself declared it “a piece in which contemporary and light music are synthesized into a unity with different stylistic elements”. Gábor Hollerung conducted with a firm hand an ensemble which joined a symphonic orchestra with a rock band (electric guitars, drums, and synthesizers, used when Margarita is transformed into a witch). Not necessarily matching the different settings or attached to specific characters, the different musical styles crisscross each other in the score. “Socialist realism” choruses, duets evoking Mozart’s lyricism, dances with a whiff of klezmer music, chastushkas, cabaret and jazzy inflexions, and segments reminiscent of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Jesus Christ Superstar all find their place in Gyöngyösi’s all-encompassing “attempt to break down and eliminate borders”. At the same time, the music is often predictable, with similar rhythmic patterns repeated over and over, with simplistic, underdeveloped vocal and orchestral lines just overlapping.

The Master and Margarita
© Péter Rákossy | Hungarian State Opera

Corresponding to the dual nature of Bulgakov’s surreal novel, Gyöngyösi’s opera, in two parts, features many vocal soloists playing dual roles. Confident tenor Péter Balczó was convincing in his arguments as both “The Master” and Yeshua. As Berlioz/Caiaphas, bass-baritone András Hábetler effectively suggested the first’s incredulousness and the second’s intransigency. Also singing as Professor Stravinsky, the director of the psychiatric ward, bass István Kovács was a dignified Pontius Pilate, eloquently bringing forward the character’s doubts. He also had no problem adapting his voice to the rock accompaniment. Tenor Donát Varga sang the small roles of poet Bezdomny and Yeshua’s disciple Levi Matvei. Soprano Orsolya Sáfár played the idealistic Margarita, her voice becoming more assured as she came closer to her big moment as hostess of Satan's Grand Ball on Walpurgis Night. Baritone Péter Kálmán was more charming than malefic as the ringmaster, Woland.

Closer to a musical than to an opera, Gyöngyösi’s courageous The Master and Margarita could be an incentive to read Bulgakov’s masterpiece. But then, how many “Les Mis” fans felt the need to open Victor Hugo’s book?


This performance was reviewed from the Hungarian State Opera's live video stream

***11