Punctuating the February gloom as winter still hangs like a shroud over the Duna River is difficult. True it is one of the most depressing months of the year, but enter into the enchanted world of the Opera House and Erkel Theatre and lose yourself for a few hours. Two of Puccini’s works, “Madama Butterfly” and “Il Trittico”, are on offer but if sadness is too much to bear, consider “Carmen” or the dark and intense “Andrea Chenier”.
Miklós Gábor Kerényi directs the elegantly beautiful “Madama Butterfly”, one of the most popular in the operatic repertoire worldwide. It is exotic, which is part of its endearing appeal; Japanese throughout from the authentic costumes, the fragile blossoms of the trees to the ghostings of oriental notes which flow like silk into Puccini’s orchestral score. It is also painfully tragic which is another vital selling point.
Unlike the composer’s final work, “Turandot”, which is heavy both musically and dramatically all grand sweeping oriental flourishes and a protagonist who is cruel and icy, it is impossible not to warm to “Madama Butterfly” and the gentle but inevitably fated Cio-Cio san.
The set designs by Kentaur are traditional but simple; all neat oriental gardens and sliding doors. The tragedy unfurls slowly, gently and begins to bite as the action progresses, evident in the floating notes which hint at the darkness in the distance.
The moment of sadness stabs with such impact in Act two with one of the most famous arias, “Un bel dì”, and closing with the delicate and melancholic “‘Coro a bocca chiusa”’ (the Humming Chorus), as Cio-Cio san waits in vain clinging desperately to the last shards of a dream even she knows has slipped through her fingers.
Cio-Cio san’s suicide contains such a strong desire for vengeance, a way to haunt her lost love for eternity. There is such strength within this fragile girl; with one slash of the knife she joins her ancestors and leaves this mortal life with honour since she can no longer live with honour.
Does Un bel dì exist for you or anyone? Or is it just a fragment of hope which will be splintered to pieces? Maybe we can still have happiness if we try to stretch out to the horizon like Butterfly, one fine day…
“Il Trittico”, or “Tryptich” is an evening of three-one act operas; two tragedies and the comic with “Gianni Schicchi”. There is a tenuous link between the three in that they all deal with the concealment of a death and Puccini intended the trio to be performed together; the dark “Il Tabarro” and the tragic but heavenly “Suor Angelica”, crowned by the comic “Gianni Schicchi”.
The final opera intended to raise the spirits of the audience after the first two. Viewing “Gianni Schicchi” after two tragedies reminds me why Puccini was such a great magician of sadness and not comedy, but there is no doubt it is worth suffering a little comic relief for the chance to see the divine “Suor Angelica”.
Everyone wants to possess a free spirit, and Carmen, the elusive gypsy girl who is cruel and careless, ruthless and sensual, is freedom personified. So much of Carmen’s beauty lies in her personality as much as her dark smouldering appearance. There is nothing like the power of someone who loves and leaves, forever searching for the next victim, leaving a trail of broken-hearted victims.
This is Don José’s failing as he too falls under Carmen’s dark spell. As his jealousy rises and possessiveness increases, so does Carmen’s boredom, those dark restless eyes already searching for the next excitement in the form of Escamillo, the toreador.
Don José has lost everything in his life for love, following the gypsies across the mountains as his fierce obsession takes a stranglehold.
Pál Oberfrank directs a wonderfully modernised version of “Carmen” where the set design by László Székely is sparse but strikingly effective. The reds and golds of the Spanish flag dominate the chromatic palette, whilst dancers from the Hungarian National Ballet intersperse with singers to create an electric atmosphere.
The mirrors of the stage set add an extra element of darkness like a fairground funhouse as life becomes distorted, almost nightmarish for the protagonists as the action progresses
Bizet’s music is renowned for the magnificence of melody along with the atmosphere and orchestration. There isn’t a note in Carmen which doesn’t cry out with meaning in Bizet’s beautiful masterpiece and this is arguably one of the finest yet most accessible operas.
From the rousing “Toreador Song” and “A deux cuartos!” to the hauntingly beautiful prelude to Act 3, the musical score speaks of so much; passion, love, heartbreak and ultimate tragedy.
And by the dramatic finale, Carmen has seduced us too, snaked into our blood and cast her bewitching spell over the audience, her voice a tantalising velvety darkness right through to the final note.
Director György Selmeczi creates a starkly effective atmosphere of dread and oppression set under the reign of terror in Paris at the close of the 18th century. The poet, Chénier, stands accused of treason and scribing seditious poetry against the Revolution, and faces imminent death.
Its tone is melancholic throughout but the opera deals with the ultimate question: how far do the boundaries of love go? Is life on Earth worth living without love? Giordano’s beautifully crafted opera deals cleverly with both politics and passion.
I would follow my beloved as far as the polluted Siberian hell of Norilsk but would draw the line at the guillotine. I don’t lose my head or heart to love. But then this is the opera world, after all, and a dramatic finale is essential.
Until 12 February
February 17 until March 5
Both Erkel Theatre,
II János Pál Pápa tér 30
Until 19 February (the performances on 11 February will take place in Erkel Theatre)
Until 26 February
Both Opera House,
Andrássy út 22
Tickets and information: www.opera.hu/programme
(There are alternate casts for each production, so check the website for details)