Hungarian State Opera, Friday November 16, 2012
Conductor: Domonkos Héja. Production: László Vámos, staged by Sándor Palcsó. Sets: Attila Csikós. Costumes: Nelly Vágó. Otello: Marius Vlad. Desdemona: Andrea Rost. Iago: Anatolij Fokanov. Emilia: Éva Pánczél. Cassio: Zoltán Nyári. Rodrigo: Tivadar Kiss. Montano: Sándor Egri. Lodovico: Tamás Szüle. Un AraldoZoltán Somogyi. Orchestra and Chorus of the Hungarian State Opera.
If or when you get Otello in your season you may, I think, be forgiven for wondering what to expect. But the last time I was in Budapest I was pleased to find a wholly Eastern European cast offering “generous, professional, committed singing of what’s now an old school” (quote from my write-up of Rosenkavalier) not to mention the excellent orchestra, chorus and the “third best acoustics in Europe,” as one punctilious, locally-written guide book put it. So I had high hopes for Otello this time round, and they were fulfilled.
As I’ve started with him, I may as well go on. He was really a very good Iago: totally at ease on stage, evidently an old hand at the part, “chewing the scenery” as people say, leaping about and grinning fiendishly; and vocally powerful, with occasional hints of Ghiaurov but a drier, less cavernous sound. Our Otello, Romanian tenor Marius Vlad, was not an attention-grabbing monstre sacré dominating the ensemble, but a team member with an interesting, atypical, grainy voice singing fairly straightforwardly (no hogging the limelight by hanging on to the top notes), though using a fair amount of mezza voce in quite passages, overall with little sign of strain. Zoltán Nyári was a laddish Cassio, bearded, floppy-haired, free and fluent.
If anyone did stand out, it was Andrea Rost, a top-flight Desdemona. Her voice has a very bright top over deep, dark undertones – very nearly too bright at first (i.e. almost shrill) but mellowing as the evening went on. She is in total control, from pianissimo to fortissimo. “Elle sait chanter, cellè-là” remarked my neighbour, a Frenchman, admiringly. It was a remarkable performance, dramatically less meek than some.
The orchestra and chorus, conducted briskly with no messing about, were as exciting as I’d hoped, with some very striking bass string passages, magnificent brass playing and, together, amazing wall-of-sound tutti.
It was a nicely-done traditional production with traditional gestures in traditional Shakespearian costumes (though without the Met’s traditional raggedy extras or overall look of antediluvian dustiness), and an almost biblical outfit for Otello, who, apart from being blacked-up, or at any rate deeply tanned, looked as though he could have pulled ten commandments out of his robes at any moment.
The main element of the set was a many-sided (12 or more, I couldn’t tell; it was like a scaled-up version of the Tower of the Winds in Athens) Venetian tower incorporating recycled Roman columns, as buildings often do around the Mediterranean, with lions of St Mark over the doors, a staircase curving round one side, some steps down to the apron and other large, stone walls to the left.. The tower revolved or split open, depending on the requirements of the plot, and inside had more stairs and balustrades to meet the requirements of the chorus – clearly, a professional was at work here, building the opera’s performance needs into the designs. (The interesting thing is that that point should spring to mind…) For the storm, it showed us its outside, squeezing chorus and soloists forwards to the stage front, already encumbered with the odd fishing boat. The prow of Otello’s ship slid on from the right. For the bonfire chorus it opened out; and the stone hearth of the fire became, later, with the addition of a wrought iron superstructure, the basin of a fountain in the gardens, with a couple of cypresses against a blue sky behind, with that forlorn look fake trees always have on stage.
There was no “konzept,” but the nice thing was you could, with the super singing and playing, just sit back and enjoy the evening without having either to rack your brain to work out what the director was getting at or, thanks to the singers’ generosity (and Europe‘s third best acoustics, of course) strain your ears to hear what was going on.
Unfortunately, however, a night at the opera is listed in guide books as one of the top ten things to do in Budapest and at about 45 euros for the best seats, the price is right; so the audiences are atrocious. My neighbour to the right, being French, did manage to silence the Spanish couple behind, though they looked startled to be complained at. Unlike many young couples dotted round the house (including a pair just to our right), who seemed to think an opera about fatally frantic jealousy was a cue for romance, they weren’t actually snogging, but they seemed all set to keep up a running commentary until loudly shushed at in true Parisian style.
To the left I had four elderly Hungarian regulars who neither fidgeted, coughed, sneezed nor snogged all night, so that was fine. But in front we had a row of American matrons supplied by their tour operator with A4 copies of the plot, Otello being, as everyone knows, a little-known story. One used it to fan herself all evening, and there’s nothing more distracting than fanning, apart from snogging. Another kept it tightly folded up in her bag; any time she wondered what was happening (the supertitles are in Magyar only), she leaned down to pick up her bag, opened it with a fortissimo snap and laboriously unfolded her crib, before laboriously folding it again and returning it to her bag until the next time. She also sent text messages or tweeted on a phone hidden in her cupped hands on her lap – presumably keeping friends in French Lick up to date on the evening’s progress. And of course, inevitably, she had to start whispering to her neighbour during Otello’s and Desdemona’s first duet.
The coughing all round was of epidemic proportions, breaking out into apoplectic fits any time the music emerged from quiet into loudness – including, as our lawyer friends say, but not limited to Desdemona’s final “Ah! Emilia, Emilia, addio, Emilia, addio!” Not even Met audiences are quite as bad as this and there were times when it was tough to concentrate. It must be very annoying for the locals. It didn’t ruin the evening, it just made it harder to enjoy to the full, a pity when the standard is so high. And it won’t stop me coming back – Hungarian food and drink are good and plentiful and, clearly, the Hungarian State Opera can be relied on to come up with the goods, and I’ll be keeping an eye on the schedules.