Erkel’s Hunyadi László has been a staple of Hungarian repertoire since its composition. Set in 1456, the opera depicts a turbulent period in Hungarian history, with weak-willed King László V on the throne and the Gara-Cillei and the Hunyadi-Szilágyi leagues competing for power. While László Hunyadi is honorable and loyal to his king, Cillei and Gara are both aiming to grab the throne for themselves, manipulating the king into believing that Hunyadi is planning a coup against him, but while Cillei’s intrigue comes to light and he’s slain by Hunyadi’s supporters in Act 1, Gara succeeds, and the opera ends with Hunyadi’s execution.
Though riddled with intrigue and backstabbing, Hunyadi has a rather straightforward story, but Gábor Szűcs’s production (premiered in 2012) struggles with concise storytelling, lacking tension, clarity and coherency. Szűcs frames the story in a modern setting, with businessmen-like figures carrying around the major objects of the plot (such as the crown or Cillei’s letter), the relevance of which is never quite made clear. The staging then transfers us to the 1840s; a rather ham-fisted way of pointing out the quite blatant parallels between the political situation depicted in the opera and current at the time of its composition, with “true Hungarians” fighting against “foreigners”, and László V being a stand-in for the similarly ineffectual Ferdinand V. King László here, however, is depicted more like Franz Joseph, a baffling choice, as he was certainly a much-hated ruler in Hungarian history but hardly one known for ineptitude.
The production likes to keep busy, convoluting the staging: the projections and dancers distract from, rather than add to, the scenes they are involved in, the rigid choreography of the chorus comes across as comic (especially the standoff between Hunyadi’s soldiers and the king’s mercenaries, where the mercenaries angrily shaking their fists looks rather like something straight out of Monty Python), and the choice of splitting the trouser role of young Mátyás Hunyadi to have a young boy play him while the mezzo sings the role feels wrong.
The costuming is similarly perplexing. While 19th-century clothing prevails, the Hungarians dressed in national garb and the king's retinue in Austrian uniforms, László Hunyadi is, for the first two acts, wearing a leather coat that makes him look like a member of a biker gang rather than a Hungarian nobleman and Cillei's uniform seems to be closer to the Wehrmacht’s than the Imperial Army’s. The sets are sparse and rather nondescript, the castles of Buda, Temesvár and Nándorfehérvár hardly distinguishable, the only memorable piece of stage design being Hunyadi’s prison in Act III, a properly sombre and suffocating for his scene.
Musically, things were better, though not entirely faultless. Under Tamás Pál’s baton, the orchestra gave a searing performance, with Pál keeping the opera well-paced and drawing remarkable beauty and intensity from a score that’s, for the most, rather generic bel canto infused with Hungarian folk music. High praises must also go to the chorus for their committed performance, fully living up to the demands of the work.
As expected, the most thrilling performance of the evening came from Klára Kolonits in the role of Erzsébet Szilágyi. Masterful as ever, Kolonits brought her usual virtuosity to the role, negotiating the demands of the dramatic coloratura role with astonishing ease and striking just the right balance of grande dame and anxious mother in her portrayal. In stark contrast with Kolonits’ virtuoso performance, Erika Miklósa was rather underpowered and negotiated the coloratura arias of Mária Gara with some tepidity, though her depiction of the young girl in love was suitably charming. Melinda Heiter’s Mátyás was well-sung, but I wish she'd had the chance to act the role as well.
Attila Kiss B. was a sympathetic (though not entirely heroic) László Hunyadi, but vocally his performance was underwhelming. His voice is strong in the middle register and has an appealing burnished tone, but it tended to lose color and stray off the pitch in the upper register, becoming strained. Tibor Szappanos’s thin, reedy tenor didn’t make for a thrilling King László, though his Act III aria was delivered with genuine lyrical beauty. István Kovács as Miklós Gara was more convincing vocally, his booming bass-baritone dark and assertive, but his portrayal of Gara was not charismatic enough for the main villain of the opera. Marcell Bakonyi as Cillei was a standout, showing off a warm, pleasant bass-baritone and a commanding stage presence – it’s a shame his role so short in the opera.
Though hardly perfect, Hunyadi László is an important work of the Hungarian repertoire: as such, it deserves a more well-thought-out production and suitable cast than it received this time.
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