‘Bluebeard’s Castle’ and ‘Mario the Magician’ staged in authentic Hungarian productions
András Palerdi sings the role of the magician Cipolla in János Vajda’s “Mario and the Magician” / Attila Nagy for Hungarian State Opera

NEW YORK—The Hungarian State Opera and Hungarian National Ballet recently paid a first visit to the United States for its American debut performances of several signature works. The operas were Béla Bartók’s 1918 expressionist one-act masterpiece Bluebeard’s Castle and János Vajda’s 1988 one-act Mario the Magician, based on a 1929 story by Thomas Mann, performed together in one evening; the 1875 Biblical opera The Queen of Sheba (Die Königin von Saba in its German language original) by Karl Goldmark; and Ferenc Erkel’s patriotic 1861 opera Bánk Bán.

With the exception of the fairly frequently staged Bartók opera (his only one), the other works were true rarities. This opera lover did not dare miss the opportunity to tuck these works under his belt. Mario the Magician was a U.S. premiere. The Queen of Sheba was last staged at the Metropolitan Opera in 1906 and has not been fully staged in New York or presumably anywhere in America since. Bánk Bán also received its U.S. premiere.

At home in Budapest, the company’s 130-year-old opera house is undergoing reconstruction, giving space in its busy schedule to travel abroad and promote themselves to the world.

Internationally renowned singer Plácido Domingo served as patron of the company’s New York tour and penned a glowing welcome and appreciation for Hungarian musical culture on a page in the program. He has visited Hungary many times to perform, beginning in the 1970s, and has collaborated with a number of Hungarian singers over the course of his long career.

The Hungarian National Ballet followed the short opera “season” with several of its acclaimed productions, but I could not extend my stay in New York any longer to take them in.

The opera “season” as originally announced last spring featured two performances each of the operas, between October 30 and November 3, but before I arrived in the city, the schedule had been cut back to one performance each, on the nights of Nov. 1, 2 and 3. Apparently not enough tickets had been sold to fill the David H. Koch Theater (the former New York State Theater and the former home of the New York City Opera) at Lincoln Center.

The three audiences for the Hungarian operas just about filled the stately house, with many Hungarians in attendance. But speculation as to why New York operagoers couldn’t fill six houses could go in any direction. The unfamiliarity of the operas and the relatively unknown Budapest-based singers may have turned as many people away as it attracted others, such as myself.

And then, of course, there is the name of the theatre—a prominent example of the fascist-minded corporate right-wing in America trying to polish its image by sponsoring the arts. I had trouble myself even uttering that name, but my displeasure did not go so far as to stop me from entering the doors. For others in liberal New York, however, who knows? Is there an active boycott of the venue going on? Probably for some, I would imagine.

There are other factors as well. The October issue of Opera News, America’s premier publication in the field, carried a feature story on the tour. As early as its second paragraph, author Clive Paget cites the “renewed commitment to the arts under the increasingly autocratic rule of Hungarian Prime Minister (and immigration hardliner) Viktor Orbán.” He goes on to describe the Orbán administration as “right-wing.”

The Hungarian State Opera was in the news earlier this year when it presented a run of the musical Billy Elliot (opera companies in Europe are accustomed to offering lighter fare alongside the standard repertoire). The government newspaper Magyar Idök wrote that this work might “transform Hungarian boys into homosexuals” and asked if a national company like the opera “can go against the objectives of the state.”

When ticket sales dropped precipitously, the company’s General Director Szilveszter Ókovács had to cancel fifteen performances.

In his last re-election campaign Orbán defamed Jewish American billionaire George Soros, the Hungarian-born Holocaust survivor. Skeptical of the democratic values in most of Western Europe, he has also professed his admiration for Vladimir Putin: He “has made his nation great again,” echoing Trump’s language.

So is it possible that between gay and Jewish audiences in New York, both substantial components of the public for opera, the weaker than anticipated response to the Hungarians’ New York tour may have been their answer to the direction Orbán is taking his country? New York City public opinion may well have wanted to deprive Orbán of a huge publicity victory in America. And in the days just before the crucial midterm elections in the United States, staying home may have been a comment on Orbán’s as well as Trump’s recent endorsement of “nationalism.”

The night before the first performance, Halloween, critics were invited to the Hungarian Consulate General and Mission to the United Nations on E. 52nd St. for an illustrated talk on Bluebeard in Bartók Hall by music critic and frequent visitor to Hungary Michael Walsh, followed by a groaning buffet table. What operatic journalist could turn down such an evening?

Máté Vincze, cultural counselor at the consulate, who welcomed us, shared the staff’s initial reaction of shock when the announcement came through that 400 opera and ballet company members would shortly be descending on New York. Where to house them, feed them, get them around the city? Furthermore, General Director Ókovács, he quipped, had never met the real ghosts here in New York—“union leaders at Lincoln Center.” One had to wonder how unions are faring in Hungary these days.

A dark fairy tale for a time that never goes away

Bluebeard’s Castle, with a libretto by Béla Balász, was conceived early in the 20th century and became Bartók’s obsession for a dozen years before it premiered on May 24, 1918, while World War I was still raging, at what was then called the Hungarian Royal Opera House (Hungary formed part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire). The only opera by Hungary’s greatest modern composer commemorates its centennial this year.

András Palerdi as Bluebeard and Ildikó Komlósi as Judith / Attila Nagy for Hungarian State Opera

As a fairy tale, though indeed one of the darkest in the book, it can be interpreted many ways. Other composers have also set the story. Judith freely enters the castle and sees seven locked doors to which her new husband Bluebeard holds the keys. She demands to see what’s behind each door and reluctantly Bluebeard complies. Door 1 contains the torture chamber dripping with blood, door 2 the armory (more blood), door 3 the treasury (blood), door 4 an enchanted garden where even the flowers drip with blood, door 5 opens up to a vast vista where Judith for the first time appreciates that Bluebeard is in fact the king of the whole world, door 6 reveals a lake of sorrowful tears from those who suffer in perpetuity, and door 7 reveals three previous wives Bluebeard has dispatched. Now Judith, his greatest love, will join the others because of her persistent, defiant curiosity.

Walsh offered several ways of understanding this difficult story. One might be the eternal inborn differences between male and female: He demands emotional privacy and she tries to probe his heart. Another possibility: Be careful what you wish for. Could it be a bleak allegory about the end of World War I? For after all the carnage, what answers presented themselves for the future, maybe just questions about the past.

I prefer a somewhat different approach. For at least a couple of decades artists, including composers such as Mahler, Schönberg and Richard Strauss, had been depicting what they predicted would be the falling apart of systems, as if they knew in their guts that the imperial politics of Central Europe could not hold out for much longer given all the national and ethnic tensions boiling away. The tonal system itself was under attack.

Both the librettist and composer of Bluebeard’s Castle had participated in the brief Soviet uprising in Budapest after World War I. My thinking is that the essence of the opera is a critique of imperial Europe, the whole continent dripping with the blood and tears of mercilessly exploited populations under czars, emperors, dictators and kings. Even the more parliamentary nations of Western Europe, such as France, England, Holland, Belgium, Spain and Portugal still at the end of the war had vast colonial holdings that they ruled with virtual impunity: India, British East Africa, the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia today), Angola, Mozambique, Congo, French Equatorial Africa, Spanish Morocco, etc. Hellhole extractive economies that made the metropolis rich. Bluebeard’s Castle anticipates the collapse of this system without supplying a happy ending.

It’s interesting to note that today the “nationalist” Orbán government is reaching out to ethnic Hungarians resident in areas of Romania, Ukraine and other countries that were pared away from the historic Hungary of pre-World War I, providing Hungarian passports to them and allowing them to vote in Hungarian elections. In the turmoil of the demise of the socialist bloc (which Orbán himself as a young man had a hand in in his own country), he may be seeking to establish a Greater Hungary and eventually redraw some unstable national borders. It’s not surprising that Orbán is closely allied politically with Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, who is also in the business of unilaterally expanding the boundaries of a Greater Israel.

The visual concept in this production is such that we do not see much of what Judith sees when she opens the successive doors. Some projections do, however, show the magical garden and the mountain ranges of Bluebeard’s empire. At several points Bluebeard implores her to stop, and there is even some foreplay to romance suggesting that all might be well if they would only leave the last few doors locked. In the final scene we see the former wives in a ghost-like eternal wailing trance—more tears for the lake—whom Judith will now join.

The two guest artists we heard at the consulate the night before were the Judith (mezzo soprano Ildikó Komlósi) and Bluebeard (bass András Palerdi). Both are established on the world operatic stage, where they perform numerous roles in the standard repertoire. Balázs Kocsár conducted. Every time a regular operagoer sees this piece, new levels of appreciation are reached. This production was no exception.

Mario and the Magician: An anti-fascist story

By 1929, the German writer Thomas Mann had pivoted away from his youthful support for Kaiser Wilhelm. He now saw authoritarians reaching for power in Europe—Stalin in Russia, Hitler gaining adherents in his own Weimar Germany, and Mussolini hypnotizng Italians to recapture ancient Roman glory by militarily conquering weak nations in Africa. The novella Mario and the Magician savages the kind of fascist thinking that was beginning to hold in its thrall whole populations of Europeans. It is finally a plea for democracy.

The opera by librettist Gábor Bókkon and composer János Vajda closely follows Mann’s story. We are in the fictional beach resort town of Torre di Venere, Italy, where the residents are over-the-top nationalists. People gather on bleachers for a street performance by a long-haired magician-guru-hypnotist named Cipolla. The scene inevitably recalls Leoncavallo’s well known one-act opera I Pagliacci. Cipolla uses his mental powers—“fascistically”—to manipulate and control his audience. He even mentions “Il Duce.” He starts off with a card trick, a mathematical trick and his success at finding an object an audience member has hidden amidst the crowd to gain his audience’s trust, in that way symbolizing the mesmerizing power of the authoritarian leader. He gets them to faint, to dance ecstatically, to reveal secrets from the past and passions of the heart, the audience at once repelled and attracted by his power to control them. It’s apparent there is no “freedom of will.”

The crowd “loves” Cipolla in “Mario and the Magician” / Attila Nagy for Hungarian State Opera

Finally he homes in on a young man in the crowd whom he calls “Ganymede” because he is a waiter in a café (Ganymede being a common homosexual term). He gets him to confess his love for a young woman. Cipolla puts on a mask (of Angelina Jolie) that is exactly the girl Mario pines for, and Cipolla seduces him to kiss and embrace “her.” (The way this is going so far, it does not look as though the opera is conforming to “the objectives of the state” either at the time it debuted thirty years ago in 1988 in socialist Hungary or in today’s “nationalist” times.) But Mario comes to his senses, pulls out a revolver and shoots Cipolla. According to literary standards of the day, that was an appropriate solution.

In Mann’s novella, Cipolla dies and autocracy symbolically dies with him. The death is not a tragedy but a liberation for the people. This ending had particular significance for Mann, who although married with children, struggled with his homosexuality all his life (his Death in Venice is another work in which the homosexual comes to a miserable end). I am not sure if the opera originally ended this way as well, but in the present avatar as seen in New York, Cipolla was wearing a bullet-proof vest and he rises again to cheers and gestures of “I love you” from the crowd. As Hungarian critic Tibor Tallián writes, “…the magician’s death does not put an end to the dance. The magician lives on; he lives on in us.”

It’s a popular subject: At least three other operatic treatments of this story have been written.

Composed and performed during socialist times in Hungary, this opera has become a much loved item in the Hungarian repertoire. It was a treat to see it in New York, paired with Bluebeard’s Castle. The principal role of Cipolla was performed by András Palerdi, who would return as Bluebeard after the intermission. The opera is almost a monologue, but additional characters from the magician’s audience have brief singing roles as well. The staging was entrancing (director and set design for both operas by Péter Galambos, costume design by Enikö Kárpáti), and the music very telling: As the public becomes more fascinated and controlled by Cipolla, the music becomes more popular, more accessible and danceable. I could easily see American companies performing an English-language version of it to acclaim. Balázc Kocsár conducted this score also.

Works of art often achieve new significance in the years after their creation, as later readers and viewers apply their own experiences and hindsight. I wonder if anyone perceives the opera now as a warning against the current authoritarian government in Hungary. If so, I’m glad to have seen it now. For soon it may not meet “the objectives of the state.”

A forthcoming article will review The Queen of Sheba and Bánk Bán.


CONTRIBUTOR

Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon is the author of a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein, co-author of composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography, and the translator (from Portuguese) of a memoir by Brazilian author Hadasa Cytrynowicz. He holds a doctorate in history from Tulane University. He chaired the Southern California chapter of the National Writers Union, Local 1981 UAW (AFL-CIO) for two terms and is director emeritus of The Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring Southern California District. In 2015 he produced “City of the Future,” a CD of Soviet Yiddish songs by Samuel Polonski.

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