Hitherto, Bachtrack’s database of over 16,000 composers has not included any popes (although there is a non-pope, Jacobus Clemens non Papa). That changed with Hungarian State Opera’s inclusion in its 2019-20 season of The Jeweller’s Shop, a “dialogue in verse” by Karol Józef Wojtyła – better known to the world as Pope John Paul II – together with music by his compatriot Krzysztof Penderecki, to be performed over Easter 2020. In fact, the whole season is being branded as “Christian Spirit Season”, paying respect to the 52nd International Eucharistic Congress to be held in Budapest later in 2020.

Works with a Christian angle make up several of the 21 new productions of operas, dance works or other staged music. A new production of Parsifal opens, appropriately, on Good Friday. Ferenc Anger’s new staging of Handel’s Messiah plays over the Christmas period. Last year, director and choreographer Csaba Horváth created a staged production of Bach’s secular cantatas: this year, he turns to cantatas based on the motif of the Holy Cross for a production entitled Cross Cantatas. The wars of the Reformation form the backdrop to the crisis of faith in Paul Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler, while the season also features the darker side of Christianity in the shape of the Spanish Inquisition: the confrontation between King Philip II and the Grand Inquisitor in Verdi’s Don Carlo rarely fails to thrill. Frank Hilbrich and Volker Thiele, the director and designer of the new production, impressed us in Mannheim and can be expected to ratchet up the intensity. Sister Helen Prejean, the narrator of Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking who becomes the confidante of a violent man on death row, may not be explicitly overdoing the religion, but the story of crime, punishment and redemption has Christian values at its core.

If you need an antidote to earnest tales of good, honest, Christianity, Mikhail Bulgakov’s surreal and darkly satirical novel The Master and Margarita, in which Satan and various acolytes land in atheist Soviet Moscow, is turned into a new opera, featuring both symphonic and electronic instruments, by Hungarian composer Levente Gyöngyösi. It’s one of the great novels of the 20th century and should make for a fascinating show. The new productions also include decidedly non-Christian works of different genres, including high octane political drama (Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea), gentle singspiel (Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail and a pair of light operas Fantasio and Fortunio by Italian composer Giampaolo Testoni, which the Hungarian State Opera first performed in Italy last December. Levente Gyöngyösi returns in June in the guise of arranger, turning the Hungarian rock opera Stephen the King into a work for operatic voices and symphony orchestra. The list of new opera productions is completed by a pair of Hungarian comic operas – Jeno Habay’s Aunt Simona and Ernst von Dohnányi’s The Violin Maker of Cremona.

The Hungarian National Ballet contributes to the Christian agenda in May with a triple bill of world premières entitled “Kreol”. Argentine composer Ariel Ramirez wrote his Misa Criolla in 1963-4, shortly after the Vatican permitted masses in languages other than Latin: the pulsating rhythms and energetic folk-inflected music made its subsequent recording a huge hit internationally. This has been choreographed by László Velekei, artistic director of the Ballet Company of Győr, while Balázs Vincze has choreographed another Ramirez work, Navidad Nuestra. Russian-born Karina Sarkissova completes the trio of works with Joyful!, based on music from a very different source: Hungarian rap band Animal Cannibals.

Another triple bill, entitled “Off Pointe”, includes a fourth world première, Marianna Venekei’s Firebirds: Stravinsky’s music reworked in ways as yet undeclared, matched to works by Hans van Manen and the pairing of Sharon Eyal and Gai Behar. Other productions new to Hungary include Alexander Ekman’s Episode 31, Wayne McGregor’s Chroma, and a reworking of Vakhtang Chabukiani’s Laurencia.

The disappointment of the season, for everyone concerned, is that the restoration of the main Opera House continues to be delayed. However, the show must go on, and the Hungarian State Opera is a repertory company: the Erkel Theatre will once again be taking up the slack, staging nearly 300 programmes in the course of the season. One highlight of the repertoire that we’ve liked in the past and that you’re unlikely to see elsewhere is Bánk Bán, by the composer who gives his name to the theatre: Ferenc Erkel. But there isn’t a week that goes by without a wealth of performances of operas of a wide diversity of periods and genres: from Mozart (Le Nozze di Figaro and Die Zauberflöte) to 20th Century works (Salome, Die Frau ohne Schatten, Dialogues des Carmélites) by way of opera buffa (L’italiana in Algeri), classic verismo (Manon Lescaut, La fanciulla del West, La Bohème, Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci, La gioconda), Verdi (Rigoletto, Aida, Un Ballo in Maschera), Wagner (Tannhäuser) as well as operetta (Die Fledermaus) and Hungarian works Hunyadi László and John the Valiant. Four different staged choral works complete the lyric season at the Erkel. The Erkel also hosts six ballets from the National Ballet repertoire, including Giselle, La Fille mal Gardée and (of course) a Christmas Nutcracker.

The more modern repertoire mainly happens not at the Erkel but in the newly opened Eiffel Art Studios. This includes work by many internationally famous choreographers: Johan Inger, Hans van Manen, George Balanchine and others.

The Hungarian State Opera doesn’t operate the star system: most productions are cast from company singers, the majority of them Hungarian. However, they will be bringing in a number of top international names: Peter Seiffert sings the title role of Tannhaüser, while Erwin Schrott will be singing both the Count and the Barber in Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro (on alternate evenings, obviously). Ferruccio Furlanetto, Nino Machaidze and Bryn Terfel will all visit Budapest for special events.

Click here for full season details of the Hungarian State Opera and the Hungarian National Ballet.

This article was sponsored by Hungarian State Opera