Ernst von Dohnányi’s fourth and last opera Der Tenor received an inspired staging by the Hungarian State Opera in Budapest. The title role was robustly inhabited by one of the company’s leading tenors with a voice of steel, Attila Fekete. His wacky and wonderful performance of this work is not only a star vehicle for him, but has made this fascinating pastiche of operetta, musical comedy, and opera a huge hit in Budapest.

Attila Fekete (Schippel) © Péter Herman
Attila Fekete (Schippel)
© Péter Herman
The work’s final performance of the season on Saturday in the Erkel Theatre (the company’s second house) employed a select handful of fine singers, conducted by Balázs Koscár and directed by András Almási-Tóth. Based on a 1913 play, Bürger Schippel (Citizen Schippel) by Carl Sternheim and translated here into Hungarian by Lajos Csákovics, it’s the story of a male vocal quartet that attempts to replace its lead tenor in order to enter a local singing competition. The only contender they can find is one whose personal attributes they deem unacceptable, even though he clearly has a great voice.

While entertaining and lighthearted on the surface, the tale also reveals, and ultimately resolves, ugly societal prejudices. The production’s fancifully conceived ducal palace set design is a looming symbol for the old-word attitudes the protagonist must challenge in order to get the job.

A penniless clarinettist and singer in a nightclub, Schippel’s low societal status and ruffian demeanor is a disadvantage for him, but for the three male singers (the excellent Lázsló Svétek, János Szerekován, and András Kiss), it becomes a mini-maelstrom of class privilege issues and a decision-making nightmare. At one point, the mere mention of Schippel causes all the lights in the room to flash.

Staged with amusing modern anachronisms among the mock 19th-century affectations, Almási-Tóth has Fekete arrive to audition for the trio in a flashy jacket and shades, with a karaoke set. While strutting like a street tough, he bellows unabashedly into a mic, jumps on the furniture, and finishes downstage with a rockstar fist-up victory thrust.

His catchy audition “tune” is more like a Wagnerian tenor aria with updated rhythmic features, and one that shows off Fekete’s brilliant voice, so laser-beamed it could cut diamonds. This highly 'excerpt-able' aria is one of best examples of the composer’s clever blend of musical styles that bridge decades, if not centuries. He references Die Meistersinger and other orchestral classics with brass instrument fanfares, 19th-century operetta, the British national anthem God Save the Queen, compositional and orchestrational styles of his contemporaries like Berg, Debussy, Janáček, Strauss and the early 20th-century rage in Germany for male vocal quartets whose programs mixed Schubert, folk songs and the emerging American songwriters of the Jazz Age.

<i>Der Tenor</i> © Péter Herman
Der Tenor
© Péter Herman
Naturally, there are side plots that complicate matters, and they involve a young lady, Thekla (affectingly sung by Adrienn Miksch), the sister of one of the baritones, and for whom Schippel and the second tenor (László Szvétek) lust, for both romantic and upper mobility reasons.

But Tekla’s attentions are won by the flamboyant self-involved Duke in whose palace and gardens the action (some of which includes sybaritic dance parties) takes place. He seduces her by making an unorthodox entrance through the fireplace chimney in a cloud of soot, proceeds to strip off his clothing, only to reveal a peacock blue sequined jacket which puts stars in her eyes. Their romance becomes diluted by the attentions of Szvétek's character Hicketier, whose comically choreographed advances on Thekla are a delight to watch. Thekla's friend Jenny, who witnesses all this sexually tinged frivolity with prudish opprobrium, was appealingly sung by Mária Farkasréti.

Uproarious antics continue, and the ending is not the boy-gets-girl or who-won-the contest denouement, but one that speaks to Schippel’s desperation to break the bonds of false convention and gain acceptance in society. Beyond the clever theatrical zaniness of Almási-Tóth’s version and the super-sized fairy-tale set designs by István Rózsa, the musical content is a superb score that bears hearing again and again for its richness of reference as well as being an artfully conceived vocal work. The entire team for Der Tenor is a winner. Let’s hope it's repeated in future seasons.

*****