Asked to name a Wagner festival, then Bayreuth would undoubtedly be the first to spring to mind. Since 2006, however, the annual Budapest Wagner Days has quietly been growing into a major force for dedicated Wagnerites, the highlight of Müpa’s season. The brainchild of conductor Ádám Fischer, the festival takes place in the excellent acoustics of Müpa’s Béla Bartók National Concert Hall and has built around annual performances of The Ring cycle, performed – as Wagner intended – over four successive days. Each year has also seen operas from the rest of the ‘Bayreuth canon’ gradually added to the festival’s repertoire of productions. In 2018, The Ring takes a rest, as a focus on “renewal and diversity” allows three other epic Wagner operas to take the limelight.

Ádám Fischer © Szilvia Csibi
Ádám Fischer
© Szilvia Csibi

Fischer’s approach to staging Wagner has evolved since 2006. In an interview two years ago, he told Bachtrack that “We started to call it semi-staged but that is not correct – it is minimalistic, but a full staging. Here, I can show Wagner differently.” The excellence of the acoustic means that the chamber music character of Wagner’s scores can be emphasised. A new production of Tristan und Isolde takes centre-stage in Budapest Wagner Days, directed by Cesare Lievi with designs by Maurizio Balò and Marina Luxardo. Leading international Wagnerians Anja Kampe and Robert Dean Smith play the doomed lovers.

Tannhäuser, which centres on a struggle between the spiritual and the sensual, is set in medieval times but was just as much about Wagner’s own era and the hypocrisy the composer perceived as infecting society. Matthias Oldag’s staging strikes a middle ground between traditional and modernist production ideas and has a fine cast led by Stephen Gould and Sophie Koch.

The Flying Dutchman was, in many ways, Wagner’s great breakthrough opera. Müpa Budapest opts for the original one-act version of 1841 in a 2015 staging by the innovative director Balázs Kovalik who presents the Dutchman as a metaphor for an artist. This time round, in a departure for the festival, Marc Albrecht conducts the Hungarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Fischer having stated "I would really love it if I weren't the only one conducting at the festival”. John Lundgren leads a cast including the exciting soprano Elisabet Strid as Senta.

Another of Fischer’s passions is the annual performance of a Haydn oratorio to usher in the New Year. 2018 is the turn of The Creation, with Fischer conducting the Teatro alla Scala Academy Orchestra and lovely soloists Regula Mühlemann, Paul Schweinester and Thomas E Bauer.

Müpa Budapest © Attila Nagy
Müpa Budapest
© Attila Nagy

Müpa Budapest is fast becoming a destination for the world’s finest orchestras and ensembles with the new season boasts some enticing guests, none greater than the Vienna Philharmonic. Zubin Mehta brings a programme that neatly doffs a Viennese cap at the Hungarian part of the old Austro-Hungarian empire. Mehta opens with Ferenc Erkel’s Festival Overture and includes the Sinfonia concertante in B flat major by Haydn, a composer who spent much of his life writing in Esterháza. The closing number geographically links Vienna and Budapest – Johann Strauss’ waltz The Blue Danube!

Another Austrian orchestra, Camerata Salzburg, takes a programme of Beethoven, Schubert and Mozart to Budapest, led by legendary violinist Pinchas Zukerman. The highlight should be Zukerman taking the role of soloist in Mozart’s exuberant Violin Concerto no. 5 in A major, known by the nickname “Turkish” because of its percussive col legno strikes in its closing rondo.

Veteran conductor Herbert Blomstedt, who recently turned 90, has a very special relationship with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. Their Beethoven at the 2016 BBC Proms was praised as “vintage wine from fine old kegs”. For their Budapest date, Blomstedt has programmed two great central European classics: Johannes Brahms’ Violin Concerto, with Leonidas Kavakos revelling in its Hungarian dance-like finale, and Franz Schubert’s ‘Great’ Ninth Symphony, a work bursting with zestful energy. Blomstedt shows no signs of slowing down – expect lively performances. Another performance of the Brahms’ Violin Concerto arrives in Budapest courtesy of Veronika Eberle, accompanied by the Hamburg Philharmonic. Kent Nagano pairs it with more Brahms, the sunny Second Symphony.

© Tamás Réthey-Prikkel
© Tamás Réthey-Prikkel

Beethoven is the sole composer in the Royal Northern Sinfonia’s Müpa concert under its music director, Lars Vogt. The Fourth Symphony was described by Robert Schumann as "a slender Greek maiden between two Norse giants", coming between the mighty Eroica and Fifth Symphonies. Vogt precedes it with the Fourth Piano Concerto, composed around the same time, but craggy, almost epic in stature. Its central movement has been likened to Orpheus taming wild beasts, the piano becalming the gruff strings.

It takes some Italians to steer the audience momentarily away from Central European classics. Riccardo Chailly and the Filarmonica della Scala offer a vibrant programme of Shostakovich, Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky’s Second Symphony, known as the “Little Russian” because of its Ukranian melodies. Dips into French repertoire come via the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, which places Poulenc’s Sinfonietta in a Mozart piano concerto sandwich. György Vashegyi and the Orfeo Orchestra offer French Baroque in the form of a concert performance of Rameau’s Les Indes galantes. Véronique Gens leads an attractive cast.

Müpa also attracts some star operatic names to Budapest next season for vocal recitals. Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Flórez presents a programme of Mozart opera and concert arias – not his usual bel canto territory – while popular mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato tours her War and Peace programme to the Hungarian capital. German tenor Jonas Kaufmann is much in demand in the world’s opera houses, but offers something much more intimate in February – a joint recital with Diana Damrau of Hugo Wolf’s Italian Songbook.

Click here for full listings of events at Müpa.


Article sponsored by MEC Hungary