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RODERIC DUNNETT reports from the Hungarian Capital


Saturday 13th and Sunday 14th November see the opening of the first new production in Hungary of Benjamin Britten's opera Peter Grimes for over fifty years.

The Hungarian National Opera on Andrassy St. (Andrassy Utca) in Budapest, located in the magnificent Opera House designed by Miklos Ybl, has witnessed countless celebrated performances since its opening in 1884 with a concert conducted by Ferenc Erkel - subsequent musical directors included Mahler (1888-91), Nikisch (1893-5), and Janos Ferencsik (1931-47). The magnificent royal box, patronised during the troubled last years of the Austro-Hungarian Hapsburg dynasty by Emperor Franz-Josef II, can still be seen (the opera house offers daily guided tours). Amazingly, both the auditorium and the capacious stage area survived more or less intact despite the heavy destruction wrought on the Hungarian capital as Russians and retreating Germans bombarded each other during the closing stages of World War II.

Post-war democratic Hungary was quick to stage Peter Grimes, first seen there in 1947. Although that early production was revived for an impressively large number of performances during the Communist years, running on till the 1960s, it then faded from the repertoire. This month's new production is directed by the gifted young Hungarian director Balazs Kovalik, a devotee and eloquent advocate of Britten's operas (A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Beggar's Opera have both been staged in Budapest), who sees this as an opportunity - albeit contentiously - to breathe new life into an opera tradition somewhat shackled by its traditional approach to more mainstream repertoire (the rather stiff, ossified staging of Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito currently in repertoire is a classic instance).

Peter Grimes, the dour, lonely fisherman and outsider, clearly strikes a personal chord with Kovalik and his production team. The new production's symbolic use of vivid colour imagery calls to mind the sets of Wieland Wagner rather than the cutely nestling cottages evoking Crabbe's 'Borough' in Peter Grimes's postwar World Première at Sadler's Wells (conducted by Reginald Goodall, with Peter Pears and Joan Cross making history in the leading roles as Grimes and Ellen Orford). Kovalik visited Aldeburgh as part of his meticulous preparation for the production, and has sought by very different means to evoke something of the desolate isolation of the Suffolk coast which he sensed on his visit, and which provides the setting for Grimes's scapegoat-like confrontation with popular sentiment and prejudice.

The Budapest production, sung in Hungarian, will have two alternating casts, with Andras Molnar and Denes Gulyas taking the title role on the twin opening nights on November 13 and 14. The conductors respectively are Janos Kovacs and Tamas Pal.


Copyright © Roderic Dunnett, November 11th 1999 


Balazs Kovalik's new production of Peter Grimes, with Andras Molnar in the title role, will be broadcast in Hungarian on Bartok Radio (Hungarian Radio 3) on Friday 26th November between 7 and 10pm. Tamas Busa sings Balstrode, Katalin Pitti Ellen Orford, Annamaria Kovacs Auntie, and Maria Sudlik Mrs. Smedley. The conductor is the Hungarian State Opera's music director, Janos Kovacs.


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