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János Kovács, the conductor of Kovalik's Elektra, has been a regular collaborator on some of Kovalik's most telling stagings (Peter Grimes, Bluebeard's Castle). Born in Budapest in 1951, he honed his Wagner conducting skills in the the late 1970s as musical assistant at the Bayreuth Festspiele. For nearly thirty years (since 1978) the Chief Conductor (and latterly Music Director) at the Hungarian State Opera, conducting contemporary works, as well as the principal Romantic and Classical repertoire, he ranks as one of the most insightful and inspiring senior operatic conductors of our time.

János Kovács
János Kovács

The orchestral playing was resplendent, not just thanks to the garish colourings of Strauss's score, but mainly because of Kovács' rock-solid, instinctive assimilation of whatever large scale work he conducts -- Strauss, Zemlinsky (Der Zwerg), Schoenberg (Erwartung), Bartók, Wagner -- distils an extraordinary energy and exposes with striking clarity intimate detail and a musical underlay that often lies hidden.

'Elektra' (directed by Balázs Kovalik) at Hungarian State Opera. Photo © 2007 Vera Éder
'Elektra' (directed by Balázs Kovalik) at Hungarian State Opera. Photo © 2007 Vera Éder

Kovács played on the opera's tenderer passages, evincing subtle orchestral colours that made Budapest's textures gleam as perhaps those of Mahler's Vienna Philharmonic did. The string tone he elicited, crazily fractious for the absentees' return and Klytaemnestra's offstage demise, was often sweet and coaxing; the brass, including Wagner tubas, excelled while the woodwind yielded solos (including a conspicuously fine clarinet for Aegisthus) of cooing sensuality. Kovács is rarely invited abroad: everybody's failing. Péter Oberfrank, who later took over the conducting and was previously the musical brains behind Kovalik's Mozart/Da Ponte Trilogy and wildly comic Hungarian première of Maxwell Davies's Resurrection, is an inspiring, inventive, forceful, musician, closely in touch with and admiring of Kovács, but with a mind of his own.

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Copyright © 13 March 2008 Roderic Dunnett, Coventry UK

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