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Erkel, Ferenc (Franz) and his operas

2010. 10. 28.

Erkel was thirty, when he composed his first opera titled Bátori Mária that is composed of two acts. The premi?re of the opera was held on 8 August 1840 at the Pesti Magyar Színház (The Hungarian Theatre of Pest); the day when the aforementioned cultural institution was re-named as National Theatre. The script of the opera was written by Béni Egressy based on András Dugonics’ theatrical play that was titled identically and was as old as nearly a half decade. Egressy introduced several dramaturgical alterations in the plot, while Erkel searched a method right from the outset and eventually ascertained how to mingle Italian style vocality and the tradition of the Hungarian melodies and verbunkos (18th century Hungarian dance and music genre) as a character national style. The opera was reserved in the repertoire until 1860, and it was performed thirty times in two decades.

Four years subsequent to the premi?re of Bátori Mária, Erkel discovered the romantic national hero theme in Lőrinc Tóth’s drama titled “Két László” (The Two Ladislauses), based on which he successfully managed to implement a real national innovation in the genre of operas. The libretto was again compiled by Béni Egressy, and the premi?re held on 27 January 1844 earned peerless triumph. The main character of the new opera, the unfortunate Hunyadi László befitted the historical ideology of the national opera more appropriately than the highly prestigious, but defenceless heroine-victims of the Italian prima donna operas of the 1830s, whose fates the audience found difficult to empathize with. At the same time, the national hero opera could not afford to ignore the exalted character of a noblewoman. Having fully satisfied the demands of national mythology, Erzsébet Szilágyi appeared in her mother role, whose son condemned to execution symbolized the tragic fate of a whole nation.

The third finishing piece of the romantic historical trilogy composed on the basis of Egressy’s scripts was Bánk bán that was featured in 1861, after more than one and a half decade’s pause. Erkel as a conductor, nonetheless, acquired a wide range of knowledge concerning the international opera repertoires of those days during the fifteen years passing after the premi?res of his two first operas. His music dramaturgical experiences acquired fastidiously through the works of Verdi and Meyerbeer were indispensable to culminate the musical dramatical exploitation of the Hungarian vocality style in his romantic hero operas. The Hungarian State Opera Budapest played the opus of Ferenc Erkel and Béni Egressy in its version revised by Kálmán Nádasdi, Gusztáv Oláh, and Nándor Rékai, yet endeavours nationwide appeared in the past decade to return to the authentic version.

The artistic pair of Bánk bán, to say the only opera buffa of Erkel was debuted by the National Theatre in May 1862. Following the victory of the Egressy trilogy, his work titled Sarolta was also his first opera fiasco: it was played only six times, and the Hungarian State Opera Budapest performed it only four times even in 1901. Contemporaries attributed the primary reason of this complete failure to the poor libretto that was based on József Czanyuga’s script. The Hungarian tone of the opus evaluated also as a folk comedy was enriched with Fench effects, because Erkel used the opéra comique as a pattern. Meyerbeer’s L’étoile du nord (The North Star), to say one of the most striking triumphs in Pest in the 1850s, presents the motif of highness in disguise. Rossini’s La Cenerentola, ossia La bont? in trionfo (Cinderella, or Goodness Triumphant) can be regarded as the antecedents of this theme, yet the fashionable operettas of the age, to say Offenbach’s single act plays left their impressive marks as well.

Erkel’s operas following Sarolta were compiled gradually slower in time, and his composer sons increasingly took the lion’s share in the process of writing them. These, on the other hand, hold their unequivocal position in the history of this musical genre: they can be associated with the second trend of the “Meyerbeer wave” as regards their date of genesis. The literary foundation of Dózsa György is a romantic tragedy that roots in particular liberation efforts: its libretto was written by Ede Szigligeti based on Mór Jókai’s “poetic historical play of poignancy” that was titled identically, and which he wrote in 1857. Its premi?re was held at the National Theatre on 7 April 1867, after the Austro-Hungarian Compromise (German: Ausgleich) had taken effect. It was performed only ten times. This historical and psychological opera epos is adjacently connected to the political and deep psychological realism of the Scribe-Meyerbeer line. Erkel, by that time, ultimately drifted away from the so-called bel canto style that was obviously present in his operas titled Hunyadi László and Bánk bán, and as a consequence of his international overview, he successfully managed to adapt the scene types of the historical grand operas: the prison, dancing with weapons, and the farewell.

The popular drama writer of the Romantic Era, Károly Obernyik was inspired by the contradictory character of Brankovics György, a Serbian despot in the 15th century. The tragedy that is composed of five acts was performed by the National Theatre after the demise of its writer in 1856. Its finishing was completed by Gyula Bulyovszky and the emblematic actor of the age, Gábor Egressy, who preferred this play as one of his most favourite compilations. Two singers of the National Theatre, the baritone singer Lehel Odry, who was also an excellent drama writer and painter, and another baritone singer, Ferenc Ormay, who was given minor casts, completed the script of the opera for the composer. Odry sang the title role during the premi?re held at the National Theatre on 20 May 1874. Erkel further sophisticated the method of musical dramatical expression and his composition principles that were based on Meyerbeer’s impact and were already represented in his opera titled Dózsa György. The audience of the age gave the musical endeavours manifested in his opera titled Brankovics György a very cool reception, which was removed from the repertoire succeeding a few performances, despite the fact that it was also played by the Hungarian State Opera Budapest in 1889.

In cooperation with his “workshop of composers”, to say his sons, Erkel embarked on composing a folk comedy, with which he desired to commemorate the troops of the Hungarian War of Independence. Ede Tóth began writing the script of this four-act opera, but as a consequence of his decease, it was finished by Kornél Ábrányi based on Erkel’s instructions. The opera titled Névtelen hősök (Anonymous Heroes) was premi?red at the National Theatre on 30 November 1880. Although, it did not elicit the audience’s admiration, it has been classified by the Hungarian opera history as the closure of the era of national operas composed on the basis of popular songs imitating folk songs.


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