Taking a series of folksongs and turning it into an opera must an enormous challenge to stage. Should it be treated it like a folk music concert replete with dancing and colourful historical costumes? Construct a storyline that can plausibly connect it all up? Or turn it into a pastiche glued together by a set designer’s sleight-of-hand?

<i>The Spinning Room</i> © Péter Rákossy
The Spinning Room
© Péter Rákossy

Probably a little bit of all three, but the pivotal factor is the director. Polish opera director Michał Znaniecki, in his second turn with the Hungarian State Opera (he directed their production of Faust), specifically took on the challenge to create a new version of Zoltán Kodály’s 1927 The Spinning Room, a short one-act which is basically a collection of 21 Hungarian folksongs that Kodály had selected from the Székely region (originally Hungarian area in what is now Romania). The Budapest première of his new production design triumphs over many obstacles, which includes a long-entrenched attachment to a more sentimental approach since 1932, by refashioning such a sequence with enlightened cleverness and dramatic intelligence.

Choosing the principal singers for nameless roles (only monikers like “Lady of the house” and Young man”) must have provided another kind of challenge too, because the vocalism was more related to folk-singing than classical opera style. However, Erika Gál, Levente Molnár, Andrea Ulbrich, Andrea Rost, Erika Kiss, and Adorján Pataki were up to the task, which required a largely parlando approach. The score called for considerable contralto power also, which Gál, Kiss and Ulbrich amply provided. The libretto is almost exclusively strophic poetry in old Hungarian, and the supertitles reflected that with equally archaic English.

The dramatic modern-yet-old set design featured a giant diagonally shaped picture frame surrounded by delicately patterned wallpaper. Inside the frame was a diagonally positioned house – but only the outline of it, which was delineated by lines of light-beams. The rather thin story line, which largely speaks of fate in all its mysterious forms, begins inside the house: an old man is dying and three women are mourning. Various characters flow in and out, singing of their dreams and memories, tell stories, make jokes, and join in communal dancing.

<i>The Spinning Room</i> © Péter Rákossy
The Spinning Room
© Péter Rákossy

Choreographer Zsolt Juhåsz merged some of the traditional Székely dance motifs with his own invented movements, at the request of Znaniecki, who wanted the dancing to suggest the emotional environment as much as the folk aspects. This conceit was echoed by the mise-en-scène’s ability to morph into several new settings, achieved by inventive lighting changes. Magdalena Dabrowska’s striking costumes mined the vivid colors of the folk motifs, and she created amusing hats and headgear that resembled flora and fauna.

Although not a key part of the loosely-woven narrative, one of the most appealing songs was a comic story of a man who recounts all the reasons he should not marry, based on how he thinks women of various ages might behave. The orchestra, under the direction of Balázs Kocsár, superbly brought out Kodály’s clever tone painting – from mournful to exhilarating – as it wove a fascinating musical fabric that used folk melodies as its golden threads.

<i>The Spinning Room</i> © Péter Rákossy
The Spinning Room
© Péter Rákossy

Znaniecki’s technically sophisticated production was achieved with set designer Luigi Scoglio, projected animations and lighting by Bogumil Palewicz, and Dabrowska’s fresh new take on historical costuming. The Polish team and Scoglio and his assistant Alejandro Cortés achieved a minor miracle with this ‘opera,’ turning it into a radiant vehicle that creates cohesion and visual delight while still respecting its traditional roots.

The 40-minute prologue, held on the apron of the stage (without subtitles, alas) was the folk ensemble, István “Szalonna” Pál and his band, of (an unnamed) female singer, two violins, viola, Hungarian clarinet (similar to the Turkish G clarinet and the clarinette d’amour), cimbalom, folk viol and bass. They performed some of the original folk selections that Kodály used, as a prelude and a loving valentine to history.

“Hungarian folk music is an organ containing a hundred sounds,” wrote Kodály in 1925. “It has a sound for everything, from a harmless joke to a tragedy.” The composer, who also compiled and annotated volumes of Hungarian folk music in the 1950s, championed his country’s folk music as not only a source of his own inspiration, but as national treasures. His words: “The fire must not be allowed to go out” were liberally sprinkled throughout the opera program booklet. With Znaniecki’s production, the fire will be stoked for eternity.

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