Hungarian State Opera, Budapest, Sunday April 4 2010.
Conductor: Dénes István. Production: Andrejs Zagars. Sets: Julia Müer. Costumes: Kristine Pasternaka. Lighting: Kevin Wyn-Jones. Feldmarschallin: Eszter Sümegi. Baron Ochs: Lars Woldt. Octavian: Andrea Meláth. Faninal: Péter Kálmán. Sophie: Rita Rácz. Leitmetzerin: Mária Temesi. Valzacchi: Zsolt Derecskei. Annina: Jolán Sánta. Polizeikommissar: Sándor Egri. Haushofmeister bei der Feldmarschallin: László Beöthy-Kiss. Haushofmeister bei Faninal Sándor Kecskés. Notar: Kázmér Sárkány. Wirt: Péter Kiss. Sänger: Attila Fekete.
One of the nice things about Budapest last weekend was the kind of restaurant that’s a rarity now in Paris: well-run, professional establishments upholding a long tradition of dishing up generous, well-prepared fare at reasonable prices purely for their patrons’ pleasure, seemingly glad to have your custom and praise; rather than slaves to fashion, the dreaded "creativity" and "innovation" covering up lack of actual substance under layers of dubious, irrelevant “style” and gimmickry, out to make a quick buck (at twice the price) and a name in the media.
It was much the same at the Hungarian State Opera. No crooning and whimpering for effect, dissembling dodgy intonation or lack of projection or range, but generous, professional, committed singing of what’s now an old school – even, I thought, a hint of 50s and 60s Vienna.
Our Marschällin (a star in her home country, I think) had a big creamy voice and no need to sing her top notes in a mincing head voice, though she could project pianissimo perfectly when needed. She was better in Act 3 than the monologue. Octavian was a passionate, edgy mezzo who really should be much better known, one of the two most striking performers in the show, the other being, without a doubt, Ochs. This was the kind of performance, both in singing and acting (not, by the way, overdone, just very well acted indeed: as the French say, he “inhabited” the role), that reminds you Strauss’s working title until the work premiered was Ochs von Lerchenau. Sophie’s voice was small but perfectly formed, as the phrase goes, and she was as young and charming and uncannily “period” looking a Sophie as could be. Marianne was a wonderfully busty old trooper with a shock of red hair, a chesty voice and huge, hooting high notes that would have been awful in another work but were fine in this one. The Italian singer blasted it out with volume and the right notes if not great delicacy.
The rest of the cast were a good deal less good than the principals, and the extras were gauche; but what struck me was that when the singing and playing – the orchestra is sumptuous yet note perfect, even in those hair-raising, feathery triplet passage at the opening of Act 3 that must be hell to play; but I suppose if you’ve played a piece every other month for a hundred years you do end up getting the hang of it... when the music-making, as I was saying, is of this standard, the production takes on less importance.
This one was traditionally (but well) directed and as I said, the principals acted well and Ochs was outstanding. It was set, however, at the time of the première. So the Marschällin’s boudoir or whatever was a large, burgundy-coloured room with art nouveau banisters up the stairs and balustrade running along the gallery, a kidney-shaped window at the rear and a frosted-glass ceiling with art nouveau tracery. The costumes were, then, roughly 1910, Ochs wore tweed suits, and Sophie, in a slender, chiffony number in hazy layers of blue and green, with her period hair and silent-movie face, might have stepped out of a society portrait at the Hungarian National Gallery.
What was odd about the show was that the Marschällin’s bedroom became Faninal’s palace without any alteration. The appearance, with Octavian, of six tall, stiff (and undeniably handsome) hussars in gleaming white uniforms and feathered helmets, raised a chuckle. What was odder still was that in Act 3 the same room was now laid on its side: the glass roof was the “blind window” to the right, the doors and galleries were all askew… There was clearly an idea here, but I’ve little notion what it was and, as I said, it didn’t really matter: the music was fascinatingly good. The other oddity, outright bizarre, was that Mohammed was a tall, white, local blacked up with a minstrel wig.
But who cares? I should mention, by the way, that the house is magnificent and magnificently restored, rivalling the Palais Garnier, though in a less eclectic, more disciplined neo-Renaissance style, and lavishly gilded everywhere. Marvellous acoustics, like Vienna only better-looking. Best seats (we were in the middle of row 6 of the stalls) cost 40 euros each. And as the whole, long Easter weekend in Budapest was a pleasure, we’ll definitely be going back.