Hungarian State Opera offered up a belated Hungarian première by one of its native sons, Péter Eötvös – his 2007 opera Love and Other Demons. Commissioned by Glyndebourne in 2004 and premiered there in 2008, with later revivals in Latvia and Germany, the work, which is based on Gabriel García Márquez’s novella of the same name, finally got its due in Budapest, conducted by the composer.

Eötvös was drawn to Marquez’s brand of magical realism, involving superstition, magic, rituals (even human sacrifice) because of its arresting visual life and stories that dealt with the mixing of cultures. And as arresting as that title may suggest, this opera is not a lighthearted affair about the comic knots in one’s love life. It’s about exorcism, demonic possession, taboo, racism and insanity. If Jerry Skelton's lighting design had any less wattage, I would have fallen into a deep depression.

Although the atmosphere was heavily laden with constantly lurking evil, the lone antidote was the brilliant fireworks generated onstage by soprano Tatiana Zhuravel. In a role that few could tackle, Zhuravel was stunning in her total command of a stratospheric tessitura that requires her to warble like a bird and shriek like a banshee, as well as produce bona fide artistic singing. Her many Zerbinetta-esque moments shone like diamonds and her final aria, describing her last day on earth, was a polished jewel.

Her role is the 12-year-old Sierva María, whose long flowing red hair represents both ingenuousness and temptation, and who is later sacrificed because she’s believed to be possessed and impure. She was bitten by a dog during an eclipse of the sun, so the melting-pot 18th-century community where she lives attributes these simultaneous events to the certain advent of doom. The responses to this assumption are pagan rituals, ominous intonations of Latin chants, madness and, ultimately, Sierva’s death. 

Eötvös and director Silviu Purcarete (although Purcaret’s assistant Rares Zaharia directed this run) have created an exotic multilingual score and mise en scène that draw upon Caribbean, African, South American and Spanish sights and sounds. The stage set is constructed with scaffolding, framed by two giant ladders on each side of the proscenium, and costumes that represent all levels of society from slaves to Church hierarchy, designed by Helmut Stürmer. Video designer Andu Dumitrescu fashioned numerous projections on the centre-back wall featuring a moon and/or eclipse of the sun as a central icon, in addition to images of rodent-like beasts, tortured figures and videos of naked bodies writhing in Hell.

One might ask where is the “love” that’s referred to in the title? Sierva essentially goes mad for lack of love; she has no parental care (only an ineffectual father), role models, affection or guidance. A young priest, sung elegantly by Zsolt Haja, falls in love with her and attempts an awkward seduction, but he too is ostracised for this sin. Other characters, like a Bishop (Krisztián Cser), an Abbess (Andrea Meláth), an African servant (Bernadett Fodor), and an insane woman (Éva Balatoni) proceed to judge, warn and carry on with communal plotting against the girl. 

Cser’s stolid baritone evinced crusty authority, Balatoni’s ample mezzo brought fire and brimstone to her mad ravings, and Meláth’s powerful speech-based singing projected her deranged character clearly beyond the footlights. István Kovacsházi plaintively sang as Sierva’s lovelorn father Don Ygnacio, and a Doctor, affectingly sung by Gergely Boncsér, uttered what little local wisdom emerged amidst the surrounding emotional miasma: “No medicine can defeat what happiness can’t cure.” 

This production used the original English libretto by Kornél Hamvai, which also uses bits of Latin, Yoruba and Spanish. Preparing the sung and spoken English with a non-English-speaking cast has its challenges, with frequent mispronunciation of common words throughout.

The opera began with magical celesta and xylophone tinkling that felt like random exploration by a child. From then on, Eötvös’ musical foreshadowing of what real or unreal monsters lurk was generally too ubiquitous, but his underscoring of the singers is masterful — only one or two instruments often gently accompany a vocal line instead of a thick orchestration. His instrumental effects are spare and purposeful, and fortissimo tuttis only come when necessary for the drama. His solo vocal writing is comfortably wide-ranged for every voice and his frequent tone-painting according to the words is spot-on and vocally conceived. His best compositional moments, though, are the intriguing tone-cluster women’s choruses that waft through the score like haunting mantras. 

“God save us,” Sierva sings as she surveys the societal results of deeply embedded superstition and heartless disregard for human life. Appropriately, the end of the opera is marked by only a single cello’s lonely, lovelorn tones.