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SJOG Travelers

Three Cities, Six Operas
By Ann Haggerty

Visits to three cities this fall included six operas, two in each. We began our three and a half week trip in Prague where we saw Lucia di Lammermoor and Macbeth. The Lucia was staged at the gorgeous Státni Opera (State Opera House), and it proved to be a most satisfying performance. Donizetti's most famous opera was given a thoughtful, focused production under the baton of Leos Svárovsky, the direction of Anton Nekovar, and the design team Jan Dusek (sets) and Josef Jelínek (costumes). The role of Lucia was sung by Simona Houda-Saturová, Enrico by Richard Haan and that of Edgardo by Yikun Chung. Houda-Saturová was born in Slovakia and studied with Ileana Cotrubas. Her mad scene was the most convincing that we had ever seen.

We saw Macbeth at the Národní Divadlo (National Theater). Vladimir Chmelo sang the title role and Naná Miriani Lady Macbeth. Chmelo is presently working with Professor Paolo de Napoli in Florence. Mariani has sung many roles in Europe since she completed her singing studies at the conservatoire in her native city of Tbilisi, Georgia.

But we found it difficult to keep engaged with the production when so much unaccountable action was taking place on stage. Prague's Macbeth opened with a modern bourgeois couple finishing breakfast. The man stands, dons his suit jacket and exits stage right. After a moment the woman stands, removes her dress, and in bra and thong rolls off stage left. Next came at least sixteen leather-clad models purporting to be witches. With productions like that,a friend later advised, I find it best to close my eyes and listen. We had heard references to Euro trash expressed by opera patrons, but until Prague's Macbeth, we were never quite sure what the word meant.

From Prague we flew to Budapest where we stayed for almost two weeks. Knowing months in advance that we were to see what has become a Hungarian national treasure, Bánk bán by Ferenc Erkel, we bought the CDs and listened frequently. A Hungarian friend had sent us a new DVD with Eva Marton, Andrea Rost and Atilla Kiss B. which we also watched several times. The DVD, an excellent production, was filmed for Hungarian television in Budapest and in the surrounding countryside. After listening and viewing we felt we were well prepared for this new opera.

Erkel (1810-1893) was a leading figure in Hungarian music at a time when there was a growing national fervor. He came from a long line of musicians and was a contemporary of Schumann, Liszt, Verdi and Wagner. His other operas are, Bátori Mária, Hunyadi László and István Kírály.

We saw Bánk bán at the Erkel Theatre in Budapest. The title role was sung by András Molnár, Melinda by Mária Ardó and Gertrude by Bernadett Wiedemann. The opera is named for and based on the tragedy of a 13th century Hungarian nobleman and is dearly loved by Erkel's countrymen. Even our production with its tired old sets and uneven performances was enthusiastically received by a packed-house audience made up of well-behaved youngsters and their proud parents.

Also in Budapest, this time in the Magyar Allami Operaház, we saw a wonderful Jenufa with an all-Hungarian cast. Stepping into this opera house is a fabulous experience in itself. This neo-Renaissance building is adorned with cherubs, marble, gilt and frescoes. On the mezzanine one sees two marble busts, one of Ferenc Erkel and the other of Miklos Ybl, the architect of the building which opened in 1884.

Jenufa was sung by Eva Bátori, Laca by Attila Wendler, Steva by Atilla Kiss B. and Koselnicka by Eva Marton. It was a memorable performance, everyone in great voice, with a brilliant orchestral contribution.

From Budapest we flew to Paris where we saw Saint François d'Assise. We had seen it twice in San Francisco and were quite interested to see what Opéa Bastille would do with it. The production, by Stanislas Nordey was quite different from San Francisco's. While San Francisco's production was historically and culturally specific, the Parisian version was timeless and ill defined, encouraging the audience, we felt, to focus on the music. We can't say which production we prefer, but we are grateful for both. François was sung by José Van Dam, the Angel by Christine Schäfer and the Leper by Chris Merritt. The Parisians are so proud of this opera and its composer that there have been three new productions of it since it was first performed only twenty years ago.

Also at Opéra Bastille, we saw Ariadne auf Naxos. When we got the tickets, we were thrilled to learn that Natalie Dessay would be singing Zerbinetta. We had seen her twice in Santa Fe, once in concert and once in La sonnambula and we had fallen in love with her. We were therefore disappointed to discover when we arrived that she would not be singing Zerbinetta, but her replacement, Lubov Petrova was superb. In fact, we couldn't help wondering if Dessay's acting could have matched that of Petrova. Her colleagues, Sophie Koch, Solveig Kringelborn, Olaf Bär and John Villars all gave excellent renditions. The orchestra was equally rewarding. Our last opera abroad was indeed a memorable one.

Although we're pleased to be home, our memories of our three cities and their operatic offerings are ever present and gratifying.

(SJOG Newsletter January, 2005 Issue)


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