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<<  -- 3 --  Rex Harley    AUTHENTIC FOLK DRAMA


Part of the success of Peasant Opera comes from its skilful juggling with a wide range of human emotions. In a way, the characters are stereotypes: the naïf young bride; the unscrupulous farmer; the drunken station master; the whorish mother; the repressed pseudo-father. Yet the surreal nature of much of the action, with its the ghostly intermingling of past and present, creates something more. Out of the unreal rise the very real monsters we have within all of us. By comparison, the characters in our well-known television 'soaps' -- which purport to be realistic -- are no more than ciphers. These characters, by contrast, strip off the mask of caricature as the drama unfolds, or have it ripped off for them.

Throughout, the music punctuates, counterpoints and creates the ambience of an authentic folk drama. The five musicians, led by the composer on keyboard, accompany the individual ballads which serve to reveal the character's hopes, thoughts and fears. They play dance music for the wedding. They become a small Baroque ensemble for recitative passages. All the music has been specially composed but remains faithful to its origins in the folk music of Transylvania, using the relevant instrumentation of violin, viola, harpsichord and double bass; and it is played with immense vigour and assurance. At one moment it propels the action forward almost like the accompaniment to a silent film; at another it lingers plaintively with haunting portamento passages for the violins; and at another, a single bowed note from the bass acts as a herald of the disaster about to unfurl onstage. Never does the music merely draw attention to itself; it is essentially dramatic.

Szabolcs Thuróczy as the gravel-voiced station master
Szabolcs Thuróczy as the gravel-voiced station master

That sense of cohesion extends to the whole production. It is an ensemble piece. Everyone works hard. No-one is allowed to dominate. Vocally, the gravel-voiced station master, played with an almost malevolent energy by Szabolcs Thuróczy, is perhaps the best thing in the show. He certainly gets the loudest laugh with his repeated, and splendidly translated, malapropism : 'blasted purgery' for 'plastic surgery'. But the moment that, for me, summed up the way this company works so well together was the arrival of the bride, where the four female voices singing together set the hair on the back of my neck tingling. It was the same vibrato-less, driving sound which I first heard years ago from Trio Bulgarka, with the added frisson of dramatic context.

The one criticism I would make of the evening was that, in a capital city such as Cardiff, we couldn't even manage to fill a tiny theatre space with audience. Béla Pintér and Company deserve better than this. If they do not return immediately to Budapest, taking Peasant Opera with them, search them out. If they do, you might consider taking your next holiday in Hungary.

Copyright © 30 September 2004 Rex Harley, Cardiff UK


Peasant Opera by Béla Pintér and Company received its first UK performance on Thursday 23 September 2004 at the Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff.

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