Completed in 1985 but begun as early as 1979, János Vajda’s Márió és a varázsló (Mario and the Magician) is over thirty years old, but it received its American première this week as the Hungarian State Opera and Hungarian National Ballet began their first ever tour of the United States. An important insight from Vajda nestled in the program notes helped contextualize the structure of the opera, especially musically: “I had to compose actual dance music… the more crudely the magician deals with the people, the more insinuating and likable the music should be.”

<i>Mario and the Magician</i> © Attila Nagy | Hungarian State Opera
Mario and the Magician
© Attila Nagy | Hungarian State Opera

Based on Thomas Mann’s 1929 novella Márió és a varázsló is more monodrama than opera. The magician Cipolla dominates the story, seducing various members of his audience into revealing personal secrets, acting foolishly or dancing. In the end, a morose and reticent audience member, Mario, is singled out by Cipolla, who assumes the disguise of the woman Mario is in love with. Mario embraces her readily, but then, shocked that he has been duped, shoots Cipolla with a pistol, upon which the story comes to a close.

The most interesting element of the performance was, as implied by Vajda’s explanatory quip, not the singing or the acting, but the orchestral music. The score at first appeared to be modern and dissonant but became increasingly more tonal and “accessible” as Cipolla continued his performance, suggesting that Cipolla was (deceitfully) engendering a world of familiarity. Balázs Kocsár and the orchestra pulled off this effect quite well, with the upbeat waltzes and quasi-Wagnerian climaxes sounding almost more authentic than pastiche. Another point of interest was the curious and modern-inflected variety of individual audience members (a slight deviation from Mann’s original): an alien sat quietly on one side of the stage, Simpsons-like caricatures dotted the other side, and everyone pulled out phones resembling old Nokias to do calculations during Cipolla’s arithmetic trick.

András Palerdi (Bluebeard) and Ildikó Komlósi (Judith) © Attila Nagy | Hungarian State Opera
András Palerdi (Bluebeard) and Ildikó Komlósi (Judith)
© Attila Nagy | Hungarian State Opera

After a brief intermission, came Bartók’s only opera, A kékszakállú herceg vára (Duke Bluebeard’s Castle). Péter Galambos’ elaborate yet economical set design – in particular, a large reddish chamber with numerical and symbolical inscriptions peppering the walls – at first seemed to foreshadow an equally lush set for each consequent chamber in Bluebeard’s castle, but when the torture room and armory were depicted solely by the singers' descriptions alongside small punctuations by the lighting illuminating different areas of the room, it became clear that not everything would be shown literally. Even the “keys” to the successive doors were not shown, supplanted instead by a black file folder mirroring the subtle corporate aura of Bluebeard’s suit and the loose papers littering the room.

András Palerdi and Ildikó Komlósi, as Bluebeard and Judith, delivered impressive performances, accompanied effectively by the orchestra. In particular, the “blood motif” of a minor second interval rang out in shrill and strident fullness upon every mention of the bloodstained artifices in the castle, hearkening back to Wagnerian leitmotifs. A memorable moment occurred when Komlósi’s powerful mezzo-soprano voice surged atop the orchestral texture upon the unveiling of Bluebeard’s vast kingdom behind the fifth door. The organ-supplemented Mahlerian fanfare accompanying this scene was powerfully rendered.

András Palerdi (Bluebeard) and Ildikó Komlósi (Judith) © Attila Nagy | Hungarian State Opera
András Palerdi (Bluebeard) and Ildikó Komlósi (Judith)
© Attila Nagy | Hungarian State Opera

The opening of the final door is arguably the most climactic moment in the opera in spite of the lack of fortissimo music accompanying it (as in the opening of the door leading to Bluebeard’s kingdom). In a rather sinister turn, Judith’s role transforms from spectator to victim as she joins the ranks of Bluebeard’s three former wives, relegated to amassing and maintaining the riches of the castle. Galambos’ set design here was the masterstroke of the production: Bluebeard’s wives were not only dressed in an indeterminate colorless grey masking the majority of their distinguishing features, but they were also obscured by a translucent screen, rendering them little more than loosely humanoid figures fading in and out of the shadows like ghosts. Following Judith’s transformation into one of these apparitional figures, the opera closed with a mysterious heretofore-unseen woman draping a blanket over the silently seated Bluebeard. Powerful and evocative imagery, both literal and implied, lingered on beyond the drop of the curtain.

****1