Erkel Hunyadi László

Author: 
John Warrack

Erkel Hunyadi László

  • Hunyadi László

The appearance of this excellently performed and recorded version of Hungary's first national opera is an event of major importance. The work has had no professional production in this country, and the only previous recording, made at a Hungarian festival in July 1960, is no longer available. This is on Hungaroton LPX1040/2 (4/62), an LP set still in circulation in Hungary (I bought a copy in Budapest last year, but one using a version variously reassembled and altered for a production in 1935. The present CD recording is based on a careful reconstruction of the original text by Amade Nemeth, who also contributes a helpful introduction.
Ferenc Erkel produced Hunyadi Laszlo in 1844, and it not only made him a national hero but established Hungarian opera as an independent genre. As has often been pointed out, he did for Hungary what Glinka did for Russia, Moniuszko for Poland, and Smetana for Bohemia. In making this point again, Dr Nemeth adds that is is partly Hungary's ''linguistic isolation'' that has prevented the opera entering an international repertory. If true, this is only one of several reasons; but poor quality is not one of them, for it is a work that could well stand revival outside its native land.
Erkel had only one more success, Bank ban: a production by University College in 1968 showed this to be a thoroughly stageworthy work.
I cannot speak of Hunyadi Laszlo, but it certainly makes immensely enjoyable gramophone listening, especially for anyone drawn to the whole world of early Romantic opera. The plot, to summarize, is in the dynastic-nationalistic vein familiar from other examples. The heroic Laszlo Hunyadi (as we would style him) receives in his castle King Laszlo V, who is under the sinister influence of Count Ulrik Czilley. Using Laszlo Hunyadi's refusal to admit the King's entourage of German mercenaries as pretext, Czilley persuades his master of the Hunyadi's disloyalty. Dreaming of his beloved Maria Gara, daughter of the Palatine of Hungary, Laszlo is interrupted by a friend who reveals Czilley's plotting, and when Czilley later attacks Laszlo he is cut down by the loyal Hungarians. In Act 2, Laszlo's mother Erzsebet pleads with the King for her sons' lives; in acknowledgement of the Hunyadis' past services to the nation, the King relents. He is, however, attracted to Maria, a fact which her father notes could be turned to his own advantage. In Act 3, Gara offers to trade his daughter's hand for Laszlo's life. Laszlo's wedding to Maria is brusquely interrupted and he is imprisoned. Despite an abortive rescue attempt by Maria, he is led to execution.
The musical framework for this slightly jerky but effective plot is that of French grand opera with copious Italian influences, after the manner of Ivan Susanin (A Life for the Tsar). However, Erkel must have reached this solution by his own route, since he can hardly have known either of Glinka's operas by the time he wrote his own—a coincidence the more remarkable as he also makes some use of the technique of varied repetition with folk-tunes that is regarded as Glinka's particular invention. A prime influence is Auber, whose La muette de Portici includes the device of the interrupted wedding so popular in romantic opera (and novel, as in Jane Eyre). Another is Beethoven, whose Fidelio offers some models, and another the Weber of Der Freischutz. Italian opera is also useful: Maria even has an aria with obbligato flute, though she is perfectly sane at the time. But no less crucial is the skilful use of Hungarian music, in particular the verbunkos, with its characteristic fast-slow alternations and its drawing upon scales and cadences particular to Hungarian music.
It is easier to pick on these diverse influences than to indicate how well Erkel has given them a distinctive character. His idiom is fresh, clear and direct. He as a delightlful melodic manner and there is a nice cut and thrust to his rhythmic style. His harmony is about as advanced as Weber's, and draws on the stock devices of Romantic opera (abrupt interrupted cadences, diminished sevenths galore, etc.). He scores excellently. He is not always ver surefooted in pacing these elements dramatically: Erzsebet does not appear until Act 2, for instance, and then does little but lament, and the final interlude is misplaced. But there is here a wealth of splendid music and in total an excellent opera.
Laszlo himself is sung by Denes Gulyas with a lyrical charm as well as an heroic ring. He handles with eloquence his expressive Act 1 aria to Maria (one of the many 'Italian' numbers), and his Florestan-like apostrophe to honour in the darkness of the dungeon has a noble flair. His young brother Matyas is a soprano role, and really needs a singer with less obviously womanly tones than those of Zsuzsanna Denes in the aria where 'he' is longing to be grown-up enough to fight. Magda Kalmar gives a superb performance as Maria, warm, full-voiced and tender. The King is sung a trifle plainly by Andras Molnar, though he is at a disadvantage in having to suggest a vacillating weakling: Molnar is at his best with the best number in the part, the Act 3 aria in which he laments the misere des rois, the loneliness of high command. The two baritone parts are more straightforward, and are handsomely sung—Gara by Sandor Solyom-Nagy, curling his voice with relish around the villainous phrases, Czilley by Istvan Gati, swarthy of voice and proud in phrasing. Sylvia Sass does not really have these dramatic opportunities, in a part that is largely static; but she sings the long Act 2 soliloquy magnificently, and delivers herself of a beautiful preghiera in Act 3. There are passages where Erkel commits her to little more than practising her solfeggi: she does them very nicely. Janos Kovacs conducts a very lively, enthusiastic performance, drawing better playing from the orchestra than singing from the chorus. Their enseble is not flawless, and their words are not clear: even to those of us who lack Hungarian, this is a pity. They are not all that well recorded, an unusual fault in what is almost without exception a first-rate piece of dramatic recording by the Hungaroton engineers.
It is, however, easy to follow the opera since an excellent booklet comes with the set. The CDs are banded though they tend to run rather too close together. As well as good introductory essays and notes, there are parallel texts in English, Hungarian, French and German. The English translation is mostly very good, only occasionally being let down by inexpert use of the dictionary: it is engaging to find Czilley abused as ''You rebel, bastard, weed''. No matter: this is an exceptionally well-produced set of a fine, important opera. Congratulations to Hungaroton: may they follow it with Bank ban.'

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