“If music be the food of love, play on,” declares Duke Orsino at the start of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. There is no operatic version of Twelfth Night, but plenty of the Bard’s plays have been turned into operas or ballets, many of which feature in Hungarian State Opera’s new season. The celebrations to mark Shakespeare’s 400th birthday build to an epic climax during May 2016 which sees a festival focusing on music inspired by the English playwright.

Hungarian State Opera House © Attila Juhasz
Hungarian State Opera House
© Attila Juhasz
Of all Shakespeare’s plays, Romeo and Juliet has probably had the greatest number of musical adaptations. Early in the season, there is an opportunity to see Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story, where the conflict between the Montagues and Capulets in Verona is relocated to the Upper West Side, New York, with two gangs – the Sharks and the Jets – engaged in a bitter, violent feud. Hungarian coloratura Erika Miklósa, known to international audiences for her Queen of the Night for Claudio Abbado, sings the role of Maria in this new production, performed in the Erkel Theatre. During the Shakespeare400 Festival, you can catch concert performances of two other versions of the star-cross’d lovers: Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi and Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette. Earlier in the season, Prokofiev’s famous ballet also makes an appearance in Seregi László’s choreography.

Sir John Falstaff is the larger than life figure who appears in three of Shakespeare’s plays: Henry IV (Parts 1 and 2), where he is the companion to Prince Hal (the future Henry V), and as the lead figure of fun in The Merry Wives of Windsor. Verdi’s opera Falstaff is a far finer work than the play on which it is based, concerning the fat knight’s escapades in wooing the “Merry Wives” Alice Ford and Meg Page. Romanian baritone Alexandru Agache takes on the title role during Shakespeare400, when there’s also the rare opportunity to see Otto Nicolai’s opera based on the same material, Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor; many people know Nicolai’s rumbustious overture but nothing else from this opera.

The Grand Staircase © Attila Juhasz
The Grand Staircase
© Attila Juhasz
All Verdi’s Shakespearean operas feature during this season. Macbeth, one of his early operas, stars Georgian baritone Lado Ataneli, who made his La Scala debut in the title role. Szilvia Rálik sings the tortuously difficult role of Lady Macbeth. Otello is one of Verdi’s very best works and a huge challenge for any tenor. Pinchas Steinberg conducts Stefano Poda’s new production, which opens in September, then returns in May for the festival. Gabriella Létay Kiss, who impressed in Balázs Kovalik’s thrilling production of Mefistofele last season, sings Desdemona.

Verdi had long wanted to write an opera on King Lear. There are even suggestions that he began composing one, but failed to find the singers he wanted. Aribert Reimann’s Lear was composed at the suggestion of famous German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and premiered in 1978. Ferenc Anger brings Reimann’s opera to the Hungarian stage in a new production based on the work of the legendary Jean-Pierre Ponnelle.

One of the most successful contemporary opera is Thomas Adès’ The Tempest, which received its world première in 2004 in Covent Garden. Since then, it has travelled the globe, including a high profile production at The Metropolitan Opera, and will make its Hungarian debut during the Shakespeare400 Festival, in a brand new production by Ludger Engels. The main roles are for the magician Prospero, sung by Franco Pomponi, and Ariel – a spirit – a part which contains stratospheric coloratura writing which should suit Erika Miklósa perfectly.

Erkel Theatre, Budapest © Szilvia Csibi
Erkel Theatre, Budapest
© Szilvia Csibi
Among the lesser-known operas in the Shakespeare400 Festival, you could catch Wagner’s Das Liebesverbot (based on Measure for Measure) and Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari’s Sly, which is based on the character Christopher Sly who appears in The Taming of the Shrew. A balletic version of this play – Hungarian composer Karl Goldmark’s Der Widerspenstigen Zähmung – also runs during the festival.

Away from Shakespeare, another Goldmark stagework puts in a tempting appearance. Die Königin von Saba (The Queen of Sheba) is a grand opera which demonstrates influences of Wagner and Meyerbeer. The plot plays fast and loose with the Bible story as the Queen of Sheba is caught in a love triangle with Assad (an ambassador in Solomon’s court) and Sulamith (Assad's betrothed). Rarely staged, it is a work that many opera aficionados would travel far to see. With a wealth of productions (59 during HSO’s season) a trip to Budapest this season is a must.


Article sponsored by Hungarian State Opera.