It’s a boom time for Bank Bán in Budapest. Not only has Atilla Vidnyánszky returned to his old stomping ground of the Hungarian State Opera to direct a new production of Ferenc Erkel’s masterpiece, but he’s also about to direct Jószef Katona’s 1815 play, the source for the opera, at the National Theatre.

Levente Molnár (Bánk Bán) © Attila Nagy
Levente Molnár (Bánk Bán)
© Attila Nagy

It’s not all good news, though, for while the capital’s handsome State Opera House embarks upon renovations, shows are being presented at the Erkel Theatre across town. It’s a decent enough space but, with a cramped pit and stage lacking in machinery, a venue whose advantages in this case are, well, largely nominal. The company is determined not to let such circumstances get in the way of its ambitions, however: its next new production will be of Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots, and it is also using the opportunity to extend the reach of its touring activities, with New York on the list of possible targets.

Viadnyánsky’s production didn’t let circumstances put a dampener on its ambitions, either, abandoning tradition and opting for something semi-abstract. His designer, Oleksandr Bilozub, presents a single set packed full of details. Two dark walls set at right angles leave a space at the back for a raised walkway behind a segment of dirty glass that can be raised and lowered. Something like a skeletal chandelier hangs at the back; downstage left stands a signpost pointing to various corners of early 13th-century Mitteleuropa. The stage itself is built out around the pit to allow the action to spill out into the auditorium.

It's a show that's bigger on heart than polish, and Viktória Nagy’s costumes represent a bit of a ragbag, mixing colourful grungy fashion for the evil Tyrolian Queen Gertrude and her courtiers and earnest dark browns and greys for the oppressed Hungarians. Throw in a few extras and dancers and things admittedly get cluttered and messy at times. Some of the director’s more symbolic touches were lost on me, too, but he makes clever use of a stag – an important animal in Hungarian mythology – which is paraded around lifeless and left stripped to the bone after one of Gertrud’s feasts.

© Attila Nagy
© Attila Nagy

Erkel’s score itself, first heard in 1861, is full of wonderful music, even if the opera strikes an uneven balance, dramaturgically speaking, between the historical plotting that bookends it and the subplot between Bánk and his young wife, Melinda, that takes over for much of the second and third acts. Such issues were emphasised here by the decision to present the work not in the standard version topped, tailed and tidied up by various hands in the middle of the 20th century, but in a longer hybrid of Erkel’s original (as much as such a thing exists) and an alternative arrangement made for the baritone Imre Palló.

The title character, however, gains gravitas and depth when given to a baritone rather than a tenor. And certainly that was the case with the imposing Levente Molnár, who leads the first of two casts and sings magnificently as the noble Bánk, trying in vain to influence the dissolute Gertrud (a formidable Ildikó Komlósi) who has taken over court while her husband fights abroad. Her lecherous brother, Otto (the solid Péter Balczó – dressed as a sort of dandy cowboy), attempts meanwhile to have his evil way with Melinda. This he finally achieves with the help of some Tristan-esque draught and the ensuing encounter between Bánk and Matilde, shot through with atmospheric viola d’amore (Anita Inhoff) and cimbalom, is one of the highlights of a score that takes great care in employing Hungarian idioms for its noble natives – lashings of verbunkos – and more generic Italianate language for the foreign occupiers.

© Attila Nagy
© Attila Nagy

Molnár brought the first night house down with his account of Bánk’s grand aria lamenting the fate of the homeland at the start of Act 2, while Zita Szemere presents an enchanting Melinda, her beautiful, gentle lyric voice and heartfelt acting making the character’s haunting mad scene another highlight – hers is a name to watch. Among the rest of the first cast, Zsolt Haja stood out as a forthright Petur Bán and Lajos Geiger made the most of the scheming Biberach, given additional Iago-like status in this version. Marcell Bakonyi made an eloquent contribution as the returning King Endre.

Balász Kocsár conducted with affection and plenty of fire, although the orchestra – its numbers clearly limited by the size of the pit – did occasionally sound scratchy. The chorus, likewise, sometimes felt undernourished, though they raised their game in the bigger numbers. Erkel's work is, alas, held back by being shoehorned into the theatre that bears his name. This was nonetheless a rousing, enjoyable performance of a score that surely deserves, in one version or another, to be better known beyond its native land.