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C'est la guerre

A one-act opera by Emil Petrovics, appreciated by

Hungaroton    HCD 31958

Emil Petrovics: C'est la guerre; Cantata No 6 (c) 2000 Hungaroton Records Ltd

On the basis of the one-act opera C'est la guerre alone, Emil Petrovics (born 1930 in Belgrade, and a pupil of Hungarian composer Ferenc Farkas) deserves to be a household name. Every bar of this carefully compacted, fiercely dramatic work [listen -- track 1, 0:00-1:00] takes it straight to the top of 20th century Hungarian opera, holding its own alongside Bartók's Bluebeard's Castle and that other neglected gem, Szokolay's Blood Wedding.

C'est la guerre (text: Miklós Hubay) was first broadcast on Hungarian radio in 1961, just as repression started easing five years after the failed Hungarian Revolution of 1956. It was staged in Budapest a year later. It's aptly named, for its immediate, unflinching launch in medias res feel has the distinct melodramatic feel of Zimmermann's Die Soldaten or Berg's Wozzeck : Petrovics himself uses dodecophany, but with all the ease and nervy approachability of Berg or Ernst Krenek.

Its thirteen scenes are as sharply pointed as Greek tragedy, with a Kafkaesque script set in grim, informer-ridden l944 but just as apt for the terrifying early 1950s Communist era of Rákosi, that shifts almost filmically between the banal everyday and heightened flights of mythic fancy. Petrovics's opera centres on a series of marionette-like encounters between the trapped wife (soprano) and her husband (bass); a deserter (tenor); sundry lustful, suspicious and hostile military officers; and a mezzo concierge, whose hysterical prying ratchets up tension and inevitably brings catastrophe.

The score is stunning. Petrovics has a gift for illuminating the grim implications of situation with light-stepped ostinati or mockingly comic scherzo, while the opera's Bartókian lineage is underlined by both the ominous-sounding Magyar of the text (full translation is included) and penetrating orchestral colourings that heighten the tension of Hubay's vivid scenario [listen -- track 7, 0:00-0:59].

The unfolding scenes are death-laden as Pelléas : you can sniff the poison in the air, as you do with Kafka or Musil -- no surprise, then, that in 1969 Petrovics also made an opera of Crime and Punishment. Each time the doorbell rings again (to sidling, bassoon-led Wagnerian woodwind) in this well transferred l960s performance, the horror is palpable. The cast's characterisation, too, is as vivid as the score : the ominously arrested spouse (György Radnai) and mock-innocently vocalising wife (Mária Dunszt), whose first exchange makes Bluebeard and Judith sound like routine domestic patter; plus the galvanising opening monologue of 'Vis-à-Vis' (the terrific, buoyant tenor József Réti, anticipating the wife's nonchalant descending arpeggios); and the impassioned Róbert Ilosfalvy, bringing Puccinian rapture to the catalyst, the tenor Deserter. Éva Golbos is the odious and fatal concierge; András Faragó the problematic lieutenant.

The Hungarian State Opera orchestra -- woodwind, trumpets and sinuous bass trombone, plus ubiquitous dark lower string pizzicati offset by leering, busy clarinet, ticking Bartókian tuned percussion and threatening keyboard -- produce wonderful charged effects, coaxed by Tamás Blum from Petrovics' lucid, constantly threatening textures. This chilling Hungaroton disc ranks easily among the most rewarding of recent opera issues anywhere. The accompanying work, conducted by Petrovics, the declamatory, powerful and tragic cantata Megpihenünk! (We Shall Rest!) [listen -- track 10, 13:46-14:46], is a soprano solo-led choral setting of Sonya's famous monologue ('Oh our poor, sinful souls ... What shall we do? We have to live! Uncle, we shall live!') from that forerunner of black 20th century drama, Chekhov's Uncle Vanya.

Copyright © 19 October 2002 Roderic Dunnett, Coventry, UK


Emil Petrovics: C'est la guerre

HCD 31958 AAD Stereo REISSUE 73'13" 2000 Hungaroton Records Ltd

György Radnai (Husband), baritone, Mária Dunszt (Wife), soprano, Róbert Ilosfalvy (Deserter), tenor, József Réti (Vis-à-vis), tenor, Éva Gombos (Concierge), mezzo-soprano, András Faragó (Lieutenant), bass, Sándor Palcsó (Second-Lieutenant), tenor, József Dene (Major), baritone, Tivadar Bódy (Gendarme), bass, Hungarian State Opera Chorus and Orchestra (Chorus Master: László Pless), Tamás Blum, conductor (C'est la guerre); Etelka Csavlek, soprano, Debrecen Kodály Choir (Chorus Master: Kálmán Strausz), Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra, Emil Petrovics, conductor (Cantata)

Emil Petrovics: C'est la guerre, music drama in one act (text: Miklós Hubay); Cantata No 6 'We shall rest!' for soprano solo, mixed choir and orchestra (text: Sonya's closing solilquy from 'Uncle Vanya' by Anton Chekhov) (1986)



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