Béla Bartók’s chilling two-hander Duke Bluebeard's Castle was composed in 1911 but wasn’t performed until the 24th May 1918 at the Royal Hungarian Opera House in Budapest. Exactly 100 years on, the Hungarian State Opera celebrates with not one, but four different productions of Bartók’s opera.

For an opera with only two characters, Bluebeard’s Castle makes for astonishing theatre. Béla Balázs’ libretto is soaked in rich symbolism as Bluebeard’s latest bride, Judith, tries (in the word’s of Bartók’s son) “to redeem him, to reconcile him with life, to make him accept happiness.” The opera opens and closes in darkness. Bluebeard and his young bride enter the castle, in which there are no windows, only seven locked doors. Curiosity, they say, killed the cat. Despite his initial resistance, Judith persuades Bluebeard to open each of the doors. The castle sighs and each door reveals its secrets – a torture chamber, an armoury, a lake of tears… until the seventh door creaks open. Bartók created an operatic thriller, a work that can work just as well in concert (with some effective lighting) as on the stage.

For its centenary, the Hungarian State Opera lays out the red carpet. First out, Miklós Szentár stages a reconstruction of Miklós Bánffy’s original set and costumes, which should be a treat. One of the problems with Bluebeard is that few other one-act operas make for an appropriate partner. The HSO has addressed this by pairing it with three recent works written specifically to be played alongside it. Iván Madarász uses the text from the spoken introduction to Bluebeard for his opera Prologue, which acts as a curtain-raiser to Viktor Nagy's 1993 Bluebeard production. The next night, Gergely Vajda’s Barbie Blue acts as comic counterpoint to Péter Galambos’ 2013 Bartók staging. On the fourth night, Kasper Holten directs a brand new production of Bluebeard, paired with Péter Eötvös’ new partner work, Senza sangue (Without Blood). Now that’s how to celebrate an operatic masterpiece in style!

Erkel Theatre
Erkel Theatre
The main opera house will be closed from the start of the season for the final part of its exciting restoration and modernization programme. This will include much-needed work to replace overhead stage machinery and the fly system which will allow the company to compete with other European houses in terms of what its theatre can do. The orchestra pit will be expanded as part of work to improve the rather dry acoustics and there will be increased access for mobility-impaired visitors. Much of the company’s work will be focussed on its Erkel Theatre, the company’s second venue since 1951, but there will also be productions at its Bánffy Stage in the Eiffel Art Studios, as well as at Müpa’s Festival Theatre and National Concert Hall.

There is no staunching the flow of new productions though, which flood the new season. Among the most enticing are new stagings of one of Hungary’s most important operas, Ferenc Erkel’s Bánk Bán (being given in its original baritone version). Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots is French grand opera at its grandest and János Szikora’s new production will pay part of the company’s nod to the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Rossini’s comedy L’italiana in Algeri has – amazingly – never been performed in Budapest before and is given a staging by Máté Szabó. The new production of Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera is especially tempting given the design team of Fabio Ceresa, Tiziano Santi and Giuseppe Palella responsible for Wexford’s knockout Guglielmo Ratcliff in 2015. The season closes with a new staging of Strauss’ Salome at the open-air theatre on Margaret Island.

The star new production though is the completion of Géza Tóth’s Ring cycle. Götterdämmerung is unveiled in June and is surrounded (ringed, even!) by a series of Wagnerian-inspired concerts and events throughout the season. Two concerts contrast the “earthly” Wagner with the “sacred” Wagner, while The End of a Friendship charts the fascinating relationship between Nietzsche and Wagner.

There are a number of concert opera performances scheduled for the season, out of which Andrea Chénier stands out, starring international diva Anna Netrebko who is singing her first complete opera in Budapest. Otello, Die Frau ohne Schatten and Turandot appear in concert at Müpa’s wonderful Béla Bartók National Concert Hall. Concert performances allow some lesser-known operas to be played: Der Vampyr, Die tote Stadt, Spontini’s La vestale and d’Albert’s Tiefland are particular delights next season, along with a trio of rare Hindemith one-acters going under the banner “GermanLateNight”.

The Hungarian National Ballet offers another varied season. Alongside the crowd-pleasing Nutcracker and Swan Lake, there are revivals of The Fountain of Bakhchisarai and Boris Eifman’s The Karamazovs. There is a swift return for Marianna Venekei’s A Streetcar Named Desire, which premiered to rave notices this season; our reviewer described it as “a pearl not to be missed”. Among the contemporary dance works programmed this season, the trio of Hans van Manen works which opens its season5 Tangos, Trois Gnossiennes and Black Cake – looks particularly attractive, coming shortly before the choreographer’s 85th birthday. The season also sees collaborations with Ballet Győr, Ballet Pécs and the Szeged Contemporary Dance Company.

While the main house is closed, the company will head out onto the road, ranging from its Carpathian Homeland Opera Tour – taking the national opera Hunyadi László and Ronald Hynd’s ballet The Merry Widow to a variety of Hungarian venues – to tours to Japan, Estonia and Jordan. It’s a great way of taking the company’s great work to a larger audience… perhaps tempting them to visit Budapest to catch their wider work too.


Article sponsored by Hungarian State Opera