Barely known outside his native country, Ferenc Erkel (1810-1993) is revered as a fatherly figure for Hungarian music. Similar to Glinka in Russia, Smetana in the Czech Republic or Moniuszko in Poland, he grafted local folkloric elements on what was essentially a Western genre, thus creating a Hungarian national opera. A performance of his most famous opus, Bánk bán (The Viceroy Bánk), inaugurated a festival bringing to New York several productions from Budapest’s Hungarian State Opera.

Bánk bán’s libretto stems from an historical event: the killing, in 1213, of Queen Gertrude of Merania, apparently for outrageously promoting her German kinsmen over the local nobility. The result is a typical Romantic juxtaposition of public, historical events and private, imaginary tribulations. The narrative is as full of twists and turns as any, including killings by sword or dagger, suicides by drowning, or deus-ex-machina apparitions. Director Attila Vidnyánszky complicated things even more, bringing on stage, besides a good number of high-minded or despicable characters, several non-singing others that appeared in the initial drama written by József Katona in 1819, but not in the libretto for Erkel’s opera. He tried to infuse new life into the work refusing to obviously anchor it in its original time and space. The costumes (Viktória Nagy), clearly distinguishing between sober Hungarians and vain Meranians, were not 13th century inspired. The set (Oleksandr Bilozub) allowed multiple events to take place on the stage simultaneously. It was a mixture of medieval looking walls (with a rotating, wooden bench hosting platform in the middle), semi-hiding glass enclosures, and a huge, projections accommodating curtain, not to mention the occasional drifting little clouds.

Vidnyánszky tried emphasizing Shakespearean links. Biberach, the scheming knight-errant reminds one of Iago. While he is reminiscing about the state of the country, Bánk bán picks up, Hamlet-like, a skull laying on the floor. His faithful wife’s death is redolent of Ophelia’s… Some of Vidnyánszky’s symbolic images – bringing on stage the viola d’amore accompanying Melinda’s lament or the river-crossing boat seen both as a crib and a coffin – were commendable. Others – parading a stuffed stag and later showing it stripped to the bones after one of Gertrud’s banquets, introducing newspaper-reading locals, colored balloons, or a prominent road sign indicating distances to different medieval Europe’s regions – seemed either superfluous or unwarranted.

Bánk bán went through many revisions – during the composer’s life but also during the 20th century – trying to rectify the perceived imbalance between the extended time devoted to the subplot involving the Bánk—Melinda duo and the historical scenes. At some point, a tenor voice was considered inappropriate for such a seriously minded character as Bánk, so his vocal line was transcribed for baritone! The version presented in New York was another hybrid but that’s less important for someone unfamiliar with the opera.

The music, rendered by an experienced pit ensemble and a consistently solid group of singers under the baton of Musical Director Balász Kocsár, was remarkably captivating. A combination of Italian-sounding melodies – informed by early Verdi and Donizetti – German instrumentation and Hungarian dotted rhythms with “heel-clicking” cadences felt special. Attributing Western sonorities to the “foreigners” and verbunkos- or csárdás-inspired ones to the locals wasn’t as straightforward as it could have been. Colors were rather beautifully mixed. Interesting enough, the character mostly associated with a Hungarian idiom wasn’t one of the main male dramatis personae (Bánk, Petur, Tiborc) but Melinda.

The role was interpreted by soprano Zita Szemere with a steady and clear voice across her entire spectrum and fine acting. Her lengthy mad scene – reminiscent of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor but also of the Gilda—Maddalena—Sparafucile segment in Rigoletto – was the high point of the performance. With a powerful yet mellifluous voice, baritone Levente Molnár had a hair-raising intervention in his famous second act aria lamenting the dismal fate of his country. His stage presence was a tad stiff though. Judit Németh displayed a tired voice as Queen Gertrude. Tenor István Horváth suitably adorned his portrayal of the queen’s slimy and evil brother, Otto, with indecisiveness. Bass István Rácz interpreted with gravitas the faithful peasant Tiborc while baritone Zsolt Haja was very effective in Petur bán’s drinking song. Bass-baritones Marcell Bakonyi and Antal Cseh were, respectively, the dignified returning King Endre II and cunning Biberach.

Despite a daring, but not always successful mise-en-scène, and notwithstanding the difficulties in finding singers able to master the intricacies of the Hungarian prosody, this rendition was a strong argument in favor of including Bánk bán in the repertoire of any opera house.