Thursday, February 21, 2019

Ferenc Erkel, Bánk bán (1861)

Let's watch this Hungarian opera! You can watch too, but better not be TOO slow--these Operavision videos are all limited-time-only (which is why I'm going to be watching a lot of them in the coming weeks--if you look in the "flashbacks" section, you can see the MANY, MANY operas that you just plain MISSED; it's a bit maddening); not that limited, but this one'll only be up for a few more weeks.  So.

According to wikipedia, Bánk bán "is often thought of as the national opera of Hungary." It's not well-known outside the country, but this production, by the Hungarian State Opera, was performed internationally. It take place in the thirteenth century, and is based on real events, kind of, allegedly, you know how these things are. While the king is away doing War Stuff, his wife, Gertrud, is, with the court, being decadent and bacchanal and oppressing the Hungarian people (it is kind of dispiriting to contemplate the very large percentage of people throughout history who have been, simply, oppressed, with no help in sight). Bánk is a viceroy ("bán" apparently being his official title), who is also away doing...stuff. Possibly also involving fighting. His wife, Melinda, is back at the court, fending off the advances of the queen's slimy brother, Otto. Ultimately, I am sorry to say, he rapes her, using potions provided by Biberach, a sort of inexplicable Iago-esque character; when Bánk learns of this, he, surprisingly, ends up forgiving her (yes, I know, he forgives her for being raped; it's opera, and given the norms, it still counts as progressive), but if you think cooler heads are going to prevail, you do not know opera. Out of her unbearable shame, Melinda goes mad and commits suicide, taking their young son with her. Bánk (not at this point knowing what has happened) returns to the court and confronts the queen; he ends up killing her. The king gets back, but Bánk is, presumably, going to defy him until he hears what happened to his wife and son, and ends up taking his own life. FUN FOR KIDS OF ALL AGES.

I liked the look of this production, which was a kind of colorful, out-of-time thing with some of the characters wearing probably period-appropriate clothing and some more modern (we will never forget Otto's Blue Hat). I also have no big complaints about the cast, who all put in great work. Levente Molnár (a baritone; apparently the role was originally a tenor, but is commonly played by baritones, which seems to me like a good choice, fitting the character well) has a lot of presence as the lead, and Ildikó Komlósi is a great evil queen. Honestly, I can sorta take or leave Zita Szemere as Melinda--I think some of her later scenes would've been better with a better actor--but what the hey. The music is...well, somewhat Verdi-esque, I suppose, but with what I can only assume are Hungarian elements that one doesn't hear every day, or any day.

And yet, my reactions to the whole are somewhat mixed. I liked the first act the best, with the oppressive court being contrasted with the suffering people. After that, it got sort of...I dunno. Confusing? Unclear? What's happening? Who are these people? Am I supposed to find the king sympathetic, or not? What's with this blink-and-you'll-miss-it moment where the inexplicable Biberach is inexplicably killed? Some of these questions might not be so confusing if one were more familiar with the cultural context, but, well...the music itself, I found, was only intermittently compelling. A lot about Hungarian Pride, which perhaps is more compelling to a Hungarian than to me (of course, the fact that current-day Hungary is inching towards fascism adds some uncomfortable subtext here--not that that's the opera's fault). There were a few very good moments, such as Bánk's final confrontation with Gertrud and his meeting with a peasant, Tiborc (a very good Kolos Kováts), who had saved his life as a child, but overall I couldn't call this one of my favorite operas. I ALSO disliked the fact that this recording doesn't include the curtain call; you just see a boring scrolling cast list. Are ALL of Operavision's performances like this? I hope not, and I will find out soon.

Also, Erkel is big enough in Hungary that he gets to be on currency:
I think that's nice.


Anonymous Dad pontificated to the effect that...

Thanks for the heads-up. Think I'll pass on this one.

7:40 AM  

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