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Recent Opera Round-up



2. Peter Grimes - Hungarian State Opera, Budapest.


The Hungarian State Opera, on Budapest's Andrassy Street, home to the first underground Metro system in continental Europe (predating even Paris), was quick off the mark to stage Britten's Peter Grimes after its première at London's Sadler's Wells. The Budapest production, mounted just after the war in a capital reeling from the Horthy dictatorship and only recently ravaged by the SS and Hungarian Arrow Cross fascist militia, was timely. Few settings could have been more apt for a tale of the outsider hounded to oblivion by collective urban terrorism and the suspicious mass mentality.

That new production had a considerable number of revivals, and continued in the repertoire till the early l960s - an impressive feat in itself. The 30-year old rising Budapest director Balazs Kovalik's new production, staged in Hungarian and the first fresh staging since that original première, moves onto new ground and proves a far cry from the statuesque opera productions that are still a feature of some East European opera houses.

Chorus and Orchestra of the Hungarian State Opera, Budapest in Balazs Kovalik's new production of Peter Grimes. Photo: Béla Mezey
Chorus and Orchestra of the Hungarian State Opera, Budapest
in Balazs Kovalik's new production of PETER GRIMES
Photo copyright: Béla Mezey


Kovalik trained in Munich, where he made his mark in contemporary repertoire, including Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre and Sandor Szokolay's particularly terse, powerful opera based on Federico Garcia Lorca's play Blood Wedding. What's more, he seems to know his Britten inside out (he visited Aldeburgh privately to work out for himself the ambience of East coast England). The resultant production focuses on the essentials and captures the very essence of Peter Grimes, just as conductor Janos Kovacs' beautifully-paced reading conjured not just the power but the full irony of Britten's seminal score. The State Opera House orchestra's string playing, not just for the half-dozen sea interludes, but throughout, was out of this world.

The ominous chorus. Photo copyright: Béla Mezey
The ominous chorus. Photo copyright: Béla Mezey


Kovalik has, controversially, gone for a new look. He daringly and imaginatively sweeps aside the huddles of toytown houses and ramshackle cardboard-cutout inns familiar from early Peter Grimes productions, shifting Grimes's Borough instead into the stark visual directness - coupled with dazzling colour delineation - of a late l950s Bayreuth staging by Wieland Wagner. Csaba Antal's set, with a vast, Parsifal-like overhanging chandelier which later descends to enmesh (literally) the constantly threatening, black-booted and yellow sou-wester'd chorus (vocally superb forces, meticulously prepared by the State Opera House's chorus master, Aniko Katona, whose massed singing rivals even the legendary Welsh National Opera Chorus) has the feeling of a vast, impoverished, derelict beach, an apt trysting place for the sundry emotional derelicts of Peter Grimes.

Hoisted front of proscenium on raised platforms, Swallow (Peter Fried) and Ellen (Katalin Pitti), are established strongly from the start : both are mature performers, with a marked strength of delivery. Tamas Busa is a convincingly sympathetic Balstrode (paired with Andras Kaldi Kiss : the whole opera is double-cast). Auntie (the strong Annamaria Kovacs), Ned Keene (Gabor Garday), Bob Boles (Ferenc Gerdesits), the nieces - all the side characters, in fact, are played not so much as individuals as Expressionistic offshoots necessary to the main action, individual incarnations of the lethal and emotionally crushing chorus.

From left to right: Balstrode (Andra's Ka'ldi Kiss),
Auntie (Bernadett Wiedemann), Auntie (Edit Hruby),
Auntie (E'va Va'r Helyi), Swallow (Sa'ndor Egri)
from cast 2 of Peter Grimes
Photo copyright: Béla Mezey


Katalin Pitti (Ellen), Andras Molnar (Peter G) and Marton Szabo (John). Photo copyright: Béla Mezey
Julia Kukely (Ellen Orford) and Tamás Varga (John).
Photo copyright: Béla Mezey


The self-conscious stylising works well much, if not all, of the time.

Kovalik's staging makes its real impact through his three main leads. His unusually sensitive handling of Grimes himself, Ellen and the doomed apprentice boy, John (played with breathtaking naturalness and unconscious insight by young Marton Szabo, alternating with Tamas Varga) produces a quite extraordinary measure of poignancy. Visually, he contrives of them together a kind of blue-period Picasso family unit. By a simple rearstage trick of transparent curtaining (one that, unlike some others, undoubtably works), he has the boy perish on stage : Grimes's return bearing the corpse, to which he clings like some kind of talisman - he looks like Lear bearing Cordelia or Macduff his butchered children - is a piece of absolutely stunning staging. Andras Molnar, doubling with Denes Gulyas, brings to Grimes himself uncomplicated acting, a glorious voice and - albeit a little passively - precisely the kind of pathos Peter Grimes requires.

Katalin Pitti (Ellen), Andras Molnar (Peter G) and Marton Szabo (John). Photo copyright: Béla Mezey
Katalin Pitti (Ellen), Andras Molnar (Peter Grimes)
and Marton Szabo (John).
Photo copyright: Béla Mezey


Copyright © 3 April 2000 Roderic Dunnett, Coventry, UK


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