Hungarian State Opera is a rep company with a difference. Like other rep companies, it chooses productions each year from a considerable stock; these are performed mainly by company singers with anything from a couple of nights each. The twist is that it has two houses in which to perform: the historic State Opera House and the newer Erkel Theatre, with the result that there is a bewildering selection of opera from which Budapest visitors and residents can choose. In the 2016-7 season, that’s over 250 performances of 50 different operas, as well as over 100 ballet/dance performances and musicals West Side Story and Billy Elliot. There is also a handful of concerts.

Hungarian State Opera House © Peter Hermann / Hungarian State Opera
Hungarian State Opera House
© Peter Hermann / Hungarian State Opera
The season includes eight out of Bachtrack’s list of top ten operas played worldwide (Traviata, Carmen, Zauberflöte, Butterfly, Bohème, Giovanni, Rigoletto, Tosca). In fact, you can choose between two different versions of La bohème: Kálmán Nádasdy’s classic 1937 version at the State Opera House, or “La bohème 2.0,” set by director Damiano Michieletto on a giant street map of 21st century Paris and described in Bachtrack earlier this year as “supremely well sung and acted.”

If you’d rather go to works that you haven’t been able to find elsewhere, you have several options. January sees Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari’s Sly, while lovers of obscure Wagner can head for his early Shakespeare-based Das Liebesverbot. May sees two performances of Karol Goldmark’s romantic spectacular The Queen of Sheba.

Der tenor © Hungarian State Opera
Der tenor
© Hungarian State Opera
Ernst von Dohnányi’s Der Tenor impressed us this year with its “fascinating pastiche of operetta, musical comedy and opera.” Der Tenor is part of a string focus on Hungarian composers, which includes Kodály’s comic masterpiece Háry János and quintessentially Hungarian The Spinning Room (in a new production), as well as Bartók’s high octane Duke Bluebeard’s Castle (with Ildiko Komlósi as Judith, a role in which London opera-goers will remember her from the Royal Festival Hall in 2015). Bluebeard shares a bill with another Hungarian 20th century opera: János Vajda’s Mario and the Magician, based on a Thomas Mann novella. Another Hungarian work based on a literary classic is Blood Wedding, Sándor Szokolay’s reworking of Federico Garcia Lorca’s tragedy. Péter Eötvös’ wrote his Love and Other Demons in English for Glyndebourne in 2008; a new translation into his native Hungarian receives its première in January. Ferenc Erkel, after whom the theatre is named, is represented by his patriotic opera Hunyadi László.

2016 is, to state the obvious arithmetic, the 60th anniversary of 1956: the ill-fated Hungarian uprising against the Soviet Union will be celebrated by a double bill of world premières, by Einojuhani Rautavaara and Judit Varga. In addition to the premières, the stock of productions gets topped up regularly, with the season including six new productions of established works, starting with La traviata in September and including Lucia di Lammermoor, Dialogues des Carmélites, Siegfried, The Spinning Room and Johann Strauss II’s operetta Der Zigeunerbaron.

Háry János © Hungarian State Opera
Háry János
© Hungarian State Opera
To repeat: most of the singers come from the company. If, however, you’re looking for a big international star on the stage, your best bet will be Erwin Schrott, who returns to sing Don Giovanni in December, a year after having first come here as a last minute replacement for Ildebrando d’Arcangelo and seducing audiences (and our reviewer Jonathan Sutherland) with his “rich, warm Fischer-Dieskau-like timbre.” (Remember to check the details nearer the time, since the show is double cast.) In addition to this, three of the world’s best will be performing in concert: soprano Renée Fleming, tenor Jonas Kaufmann and bass René Pape.

Dance takes second place to opera in the season, but dance fans will still have plenty of opportunity with 16 different shows in the year as well as no less than 45 performances of Billy Eliot. The classics are there – Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, Manon, Don Quixote – as well as more recent works such as John Cranko’s Onegin, and the first performance in Budapest of Le Corsaire, using the version choreographed by Anna-Marie Holmes for the Boston Ballet in 1997. There are also Hungarian choreographies such as Lilla Pártay’s Anna Karenina, Marianna Venekei’s A Streetcar Named Desire and László Seregi’s Spartacus. Contemporary Hungarian companies get their chance to shine in two shows in March: Dance Trend ‘17 and Pas de Quatre ‘17.

Onegin © Hungarian State Opera
© Hungarian State Opera
Finally, the main opera house on Andrássy avenue is one of the most beautifully palatial in Europe, but no-one’s denying that it’s in need of some serious TLC. A major, multi-stage reconstruction project is in the works, which includes moving various functions to a substantial new classical music complex at Eiffel Art Studios, to be opened in spring 2017. The building was originally a giant locomotive repair works, architected by an employee of Gustave Eiffel (he of tower fame). It’s an imposing piece of industrial heritage which will play host to four operas in May and June, culminating in Mozart’s obscure buffa fragment L’oca del Cairo (think “Trojan goose” rather than “Trojan horse”) and a concert performance of Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux, featuring veteran favourite Edita Gruberová.

The season closes in July at the Erkel with what may well be the most fascinating piece of the whole season: the world première of Levente Gyöngyösi’s operatic take on one of the twentieth century’s greatest novels, Mikhail Bulgakov’s satirical / magical-realist / absurdist The Master and Margarita. I can’t wait.


This article was sponsored by Hungarian State Opera