Hungarian critic Sándor Hevesy once declared that Bluebeard's Castle was “far too dark”. Well Bartók wasn’t exactly a cheerful man. At that time, he had become entirely dark and secretive. Yet, Bluebeard's Castle and The Miraculous Mandarin are probably the summation of his orchestral journey. And what better experience then making it to Budapest, to hear it in its birthplace?

Andrea Szántó and Gábor Bretz in <i>Duke Blackbeard's Castle</i> © János Posztós, CAFe Budapest
Andrea Szántó and Gábor Bretz in Duke Blackbeard's Castle
© János Posztós, CAFe Budapest
Müpa Budapest is a splendid venue. Its “Bartók National Concert Hall”, with a capacity of 1699, is decked in colourful wooden panels and gifted with wondrous acoustics, with an incredible warmth and an extra-wide stereo image. Fortunately, the Hungarian National Philharmonic Orchestra was as lustrous as its background, with its deep, Old World string sound and a woodwind section stocked with highly gifted players. The way they incisively phrased the 'véres' [blood] motif, for it is used whenever Judith notices blood in the castle, amplified the strange sense of unity across this piece. And the reason why instrumental support is so important in this opera is that a conductor’s view of the music (especially that slow introduction, with its repetitive pattern) can take the work in different directions. Choices in orchestration can signal a different spiritual dimension to this music as well; last night, the organ was used boldly to triumphant effect in the climactic opening of the fifth door.

The conductor made a single phrase out of that introductory ascent, with unrelenting tension, turning the first minutes into something all the more gripping. The most salient characteristic of Zoltan Kocsis’ direction, was his keeping the pace, moving forward with an uncompromising tempo – he was a good match for the duo of Andrea Szántó and Gábor Bretz in that respect. Although co-ordination was off in some minor instances, the orchestra demonstrated incredible human musicianship. French horn solos were honeyed yet riveting. Celesta and xylophone were by no means outsiders, more part of an integrated texture. The brass section was disconcertingly ardent on “Nézd, Hogy Derül Már A Váramthe!” (The Fifth Door): a little burly, rather than pure, in style but it was certainly a delightful surprise to the ear. And there were marvellously shaded places in “Könnyek [tears], Judit, könnyek” (The Sixth Door), while Laszlo Zsolt Bordos’ high-resolution animations (a close-up video of blood sprawling into water) added to the nightmarish atmosphere.

Andrea Szántó and Gábor Bretz in <i>Duke Blackbeard's Castle</i> © János Posztós, CAFe Budapest
Andrea Szántó and Gábor Bretz in Duke Blackbeard's Castle
© János Posztós, CAFe Budapest
Surtitles were absent, yet they were barely needed given the intelligibility of the staging. Eva Szendrényi’s stage designs were plain yet stunning. Traditionally, the set is a single dark hall surrounded by the seven doors. This time, doors were swapped for seven white banners, randomly stretched across the plateau, lit up sequentially, almost like negative images of each other. Gold gave way to green, until a sky-blue breach opened up on the ceiling – a bold visual statement where half-heartedness cuts to resolute jubilation.

As Bluebeard, Gábor Bretz’s incredible stamina and minimal vibrato provided the character with great constancy and stature, with earthy vigour, and yet, more ambiguity than usual. It’s difficult to assess how daunting the challenges were, as regards Andrea Szántó’s assumption of the role of Judith, a part that calls for outpourings of angst and ardency. However, Szántó’s ravishing mezzo-soprano and hot-blooded lyricism filled Müpa with ease. It was so gorgeous that I felt a lump in my throat during the coda, a moment in which the music achingly wades through heavy water, until it bridges the gap between sound and silence.

Ujvári Katalin (Mimi in <i>The Miraculous Mandarin</i>) © János Posztós, CAFe Budapest
Ujvári Katalin (Mimi in The Miraculous Mandarin)
© János Posztós, CAFe Budapest
That poignancy continued into The Miraculous Mandarin, whose expressive world and musical rawness are, if anything, even bleaker than what is above. Make no mistake, this was a fantastic performance. Choreographer Vincze Balázs brought out the sexual tension from the very beginning, creating a sense of drunken indolence and languor. Sure enough, the Mimi-Miraculous Mandarin duo (Ujvári Katalin and Péter Koncz)  was exceptional, yet particular mention should go to the three tramps, especially in the First and Second seduction game.

Another of Szendrényi’s cunning ploys were projector lamps mounted on castors, wandering across the stage, as the dancers rode piggyback on them – a brilliant idea! What was the meaning of all this? Above all, it looked like the search for a key to the unlikely weaving of opposites, situations and status which the 20th century has brought to us. A reality best exemplified in the music itself, with its delicate sense of the absurd, which already foreshadows Ligeti’s Grand Macabre or Louis Andriessen’s M is for Man, Music, Mozart.

<i>The Miraculous Mandarin</i> © János Posztós, CAFe Budapest
The Miraculous Mandarin
© János Posztós, CAFe Budapest

In the meantime, the players tucked in some honks, mews, and fire sirens with great gusto; but that is because Kocsis puts the outer world, all of its peripheral sounds, into his music. His vision is by no means a ‘Boulezian’ reading; in fact, it is rather anti-analytical, like a learning-by-doing process based on decades of experience. This was even more so given the sonic experience, as the HNPO’s tonal qualities proved ideal; brass were ideally bombastic on the Mandarin’s entrée… Let us not forget the woodwinds, especially the famous clarinet solo. Soloist Zsolt Szatmári did this with unpretentious, spontaneous musicality, which was incredibly eloquent just because it was so simple on the surface.

In the end, nothing could have illustrated more clearly the contrast between Bluebeard and The Miraculous Mandarin than their back-to-back appearances; darkness and light bound together as part of a mutual whole, of opposite yet equal qualities.

*****