Opening the weekend that marked the 60th anniversary of the Hungarian revolution, The Mine (A Bánya) dramatizes events from those turbulent times. The first of nine operas by the prolific Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara, its sharp critique of contemporary Communism ensured it would not reach the stage when completed in 1960. In this stage première, translated into Hungarian, The Mine is paired effectively with Judit Varga's new opera Love (Szerelem). While The Mine charts the futile efforts of revolutionary coal miners to withstand the Communist crackdown, Love focuses on a central female figure who leads a life of bold deception while her husband is in jail for political reasons. Inspired by the 1971 film of the same name directed by Károly Makk, and autobiographical stories by the persecuted Hungarian writer Tibor Déry, Varga's Love offers a contemporary reflection on the stifling post-revolutionary years, placing a spotlight on the roles of women.

<i>The Mine</i> © Péter Rákossy
The Mine
© Péter Rákossy

Rautavaara's serially-influenced early compositional style sets the opening of The Mine with taught rhythms and gaping textures. The angry coal miners have beaten and tied up the Kommisar, and their leader Marko further stokes discontent. When their colleague Simon, who has spent several years away from the mine, returns with his partner Ira, the constellation changes. Rautavaara's libretto is not a directly transparent narrative, and he establishes symbolic contrast between Simon's time living in the mountains and the subterranean labyrinth where the resistors will ultimately confront their powerlessness. In one of the opera's few aria-like passages, Simon, sympathetically and richly sung by Tommi Hakala, reflects nostalgically. Wisps of melody decorate a pointillistic backdrop as he admits that the time of the birds is over. Now it is the time of the earth.

The second act switches to jazz-tinged music ostensibly sounding from a radio as a disillusioned Ira seeks a dance partner. Although her character is two-dimensional and an object of scorn, Adrienn Miksch's clarion soprano and energetic stage presence underscore her tragic abandonment as Simon decides to focus on leading the resistance. Ira fatefully cuts loose the Kommisar (Béla Laborfalvi Soós), who in turns wounds Marko, and draws Ira into the middle of a potentially fatal altercation with Simon, powerfully staged as a strange dance in itself with gripping, concentrated music.

<i>The Mine</i> © Péter Rákossy
The Mine
© Péter Rákossy

Antti Mattila's aptly bleak and economical grey set openly transforms to become a shaft into the mine for the third and final act. Simon prevents anyone from escaping. Rautavaara achieves impressive climactic waves as the trapped chorus pray. A priest, sung sombrely by Péter Fried, seems reassured but their outbursts are desperate, and the community unravels as a dissonant drinking song ensues. Marko, authoritatively sung and acted by Atilla Kiss B., dies with his arms outstretched, crucifixion-like, while Ira is shot in a wild outburst by Simon. The men and women abandon him to pursue another underground route. Bells toll as the Komissar leads the Communists in storming the mine. They impale Simon before following the voices in the distance. Whereas Rautavaara envisioned the last scene showing the miners reaching open air, director Vilppu Kiljunen's handling of this potent material leaves us in the dark, with the Komissar's deadly searchlight scanning the faces of the audience.

Love, by contrast, focuses on five individuals, and the chorus performs only an occasional offstage role until the end. At the heart of things is Luca, who daily visits her bedridden mother-in-law bearing gifts she cannot afford. She fabricates letters that convey her husband's wild success as a filmmaker in the US, when in reality he's a political prisoner. The falsification masks Janos' long absence and sustains his mother with a sense of pride. Gabriella Fodor admirably created the challenging role of Luca, with striking vocal precision and versatility, complemented by strong performances from Éva Balatoni as the old mother-in-law, Mária Farkasréti as the knowing maid, and Veronika Dobi-Kiss as Luca's own mother.

<i>Love</i> © Szilvia Csibi
Love
© Szilvia Csibi

The sense that a traumatic event has precipitated Luca's role-playing is conveyed by the extended series of weighty, Straussian dissonances that launch Love. Luca's natural temperament is unsettled and high strung, underscored by quirky chamber textures. Varga adopts a minimalist musical language, with its veneer of stability, for the reading of yet another fantastic letter detailing her son's fame.

Mattila's spartan set opens up at the back for telling glimpses of the backstory, colorfully staged by Kiljunen and deftly integrated into Varga's libretto. The cigar-smoking János thus appears in a gaudy red suit, as if in a B-movie set in Las Vegas. A more truthful vignette shows prisoners having their heads shaved, with brassy explosions recalling Wozzeck. Luca, jobless and unable to retain her apartment, cannot sustain her lies forever. Her frustration overflows when she threatens to write a letter demanding that János return home. He is eventually released from prison, but only after his mother has lost her grip on life. Luca has just attended her funeral when she encounters János (Boldizsár László), and lamenting strings bleed into their reunion. The chorus speaks/sings for Luca, conveying the love she has carried for him through the years of separation, but she herself is hollowed out. For all of the angst with which this work begins, the emptiness of the ending has unfulfilled dramatic potential, and would benefit from further development.