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Gyula Fekete: The story of a motherGyula Fekete: The story of a motherReview of Gyula Fekete’s opera The story of a mother. 'A rare moment' - we often say, when a new Hungarian opera is premiered. However, this assessment was fortunately less and less true in recent years, owing to the Miskolc Opera Festival, too. In the previous three years several premieres of Hungarian operas took place at the Festival - among others the new work of György Selmeczi, János Vajda, György Orbán and László Dubrovay. We have a good reason to hope, that this tendency will continue in the future, as well.

At this year’s Opera Festival Gyula Fekete’s work The story of a mother was premiered. The composer’s last opera, Excelsior! was premiered in 2011, and was performed in Thália Theatre with great success (unfortunately, since then it has not been billed again). The story of a mother was written much earlier, in the middle of the 2000’s, but turned out to be unfortunate, as it had not been performed for ten years. From articles and interviews published recently, the audience could also be aware of it, so the premiere has been awaited eagerly. This fact probably resulted in greater expectations, too, but the work was definitely received positively; it was a huge success, with frenetic applause, which was equally addressed to the very well written, melodic music, the heartbreaking story, the excellent libretto and the good performers.

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We are talking about Gyula Fekete’s opera, but I have to make it clear, that this time, determining the genre is far from being obvious. Because The story of a mother is half opera and half musical.

We know several examples in the history of music, that a work is at the border of opera and operetta or opera and musical. However, the case of The story of a mother is a little bit different: certain parts of the piece obviously sound like opera, but some other parts are definitely musical-like, i.e. we can hear both opera and musical in one single work. At least this was my first impression, though it is possible, that the cast fooled me. Because it was often difficult to decide if something sounded like a musical, because it was sung by musical singers, or because the music itself was written in the form of a musical, as a genre, according to the musical criteria of it (I think both). Among the performers there were opera singers, operetta singers and musical singers, too. Still, this special and unusual cast and the symphonic sound together did take on a character of a harmonious, homogeneous nature, thanks to the music written with an excellent sense of style, which - most of the time - could create an adequate unison of the different types of voices. ’Most of the time’, because - although the different vocal styles and timbres heard separately but within one single work rather seemed interesting, than annoying - in the ensembles (especially in the trios and quartets) I found it more problematic. There was no amplification, and the opera singers’ voices drowned the musical singers’ voices, therefore the music in these scenes could not be heard in all its beauty. Maybe it would have been better if - keeping the differences in style - the colours of the voices do get closer to each other, at least in the case of the two ’extremes’: Tünde Frankó’s operatic voice and Veronika Nádasi’s musical voice. (The similarly musical-like male voices did not vary from Tünde Frankó’s voice).

Gyula Fekete: The story of a motherGyula Fekete: The story of a motherNevertheless, on the whole, a novel production was created from this combination of genres, which could even be called pioneering. I myself at least have never seen or heard anything similar. After all: whether we talk about opera, operetta or musical, in all cases we mean musical theatre by them. (Is this maybe the musical theatre of the 21st century?)

However, the libretto should have been subtitled. Sometimes it was unintelligible, especially in the case of Tünde Frankó and Anita Lukács. (It is because of vocal technique: opera singers, who do not use microphones, sing with a special technique, as they also have to be able to fill a big opera house with their voice and sing over a large orchestra; the ’throat singing’ of musical singers couples with a more intelligible diction, but in a larger theatre they need a microphone to be heard.) And it was the first time that we could hear this work, so to understand the already symbolic action became somewhat more difficult.

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The story was written after the Danish tale-writer Hans Christian Andersen’s work, which was published in 1847. Its popularity is well demonstrated by the fact that several film adaptations were made of it, too, but it was the first time that an opera version was made. The libretto written for Gyula Fekete’s music - by poet Zsuzsa Beney, who died in 2006 - is beautiful, and can be read independently, as a poem, without music. 

This fairly abstract, mystical Scandinavian story is about self-sacrificing motherly love, the unconditional devotion to a dead, beloved person - a child -, the painful necessity of ’letting the dead go’, the acceptance or the denial of our earthly life being finite.

The work begins with troubled, painful music. A mother keeps vigil over her ill little child, who is unexpectdely carried away by Death dropping in. The clock in the room falls down, time stops, and the woman gets into another world, to the realm of Night. She desperately begins to chase Death. She meets Night, who only lets her go by if the woman sings the lullaby she often crooned to her child, and gives the Night her soul (’Her singing soul has run dry…’ - the Thorn bush says later). In the forest the Mother has to warm the frozen Thorn bush, giving her blood by this (’Hug me, pour your blood in me!’). The Lake only lets her go by if she sacrifices her eyesight (’You have cried the pearls of your eyes to the depth of the lake…’ - says the Gravedigger to the woman later). She gets to a graveyard blindly, where Death’s helper, the Gravedigger waits for her. He asks for the woman’s black hair (’Take my grey hair!’ - he offers in turn). The Gravedigger cares for plants and trees, all of which hide a human life. Among them the Mother finds an ill little plant, her child, whom she recognizes by its heartbeat, and for whose life she begins to beg. Death arrives, gives the woman’s eyes back to her and asks her to look into a well. There the woman sees the futures of two children: one’s life will be happy on Earth, the other’s will be miserable, but it is a secret, which one her child will be, if it stays alive. The Mother decides that she entrusts the child’s life to God: let them take it away to the unknown, where she can never see it again, but where it will be a ’star in the sky’. She has to let it go to make it happy, even at the expense of her own unhappiness.   

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Gyula Fekete: The story of a motherGyula Fekete: The story of a motherThe music is ingratiatingly beautiful, full of melodious tunes and harmonies. There are no boring moments, we can hear a real audience-friendly music. The musical material is not very complicated, but designed masterly; it is pure and effective, sometimes a bit theatrical, but with good taste. It is not without smart musical ideas, which is apparent in several orchestral parts, in the orchestration, and - more obviously - in scenes, like the aria of the Lake, which can be regarded as a bel canto coloratura soprano aria (or rather, the parody of that). The atmospheric power of the music - sometimes reminding us of film music - should also be highlighted, just as the composer’s good sense of proportion, by which he fused the musical parts having different stylistic features together. Even after watching this work for the first time, I will not forget several moments: for example, the lyrical duett of the Mother and Death (’I loved you this way, more than anybody…’), the duet of Night and the Thorn bush (’We go to sleep and wake up everyday, you and me…’), the already mentioned big aria of the Lake (’You try the impossible, you will not succeed…’) and the very impressive scene of the Mother and the Thorn bush, as well as the dramatic monologues of the Mother.  

The work is also well-structured in dramaturgical terms, it is brief enough, without unnecessary parts. However, I do not find it a good idea, that the death of the child already occurs at the beginning of the piece. True, it is preceded by the lullaby of the Mother, but this introduction is still too short, which makes the emotional identification with the Mother’s suffering and pain a bit more difficult for the audience, or at least delays it. 

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Sándor Zsótér’s stage-direction put even another layer on the already symbolic action: here Andersen’s tale-world, the location, where his story takes place can only be interpreted in metaphorical terms. The real location of the events is a block of flats. More precisely, we can see four neighbouring rooms on the stage, two on the basement and two upstairs (stage setting: Mária Ambrus). All the events take place in this space divided into four parts. At the beginning of the work the Mother lives with his child in one of these flats (anyway, the child is a puppet, not a real person), while Night, the Thorn bush and the Lake live in the other flats, but the majestic conclusion of the story, when the Mother meets Death again, also takes place here. The rooms are simple, there are no furnitures, only colorful wallpapers and pictures on the wall. However, the room of the Mother is sloping, it is slanted – in her life everything is overturned.

The characters are on the stage almost all the time and they wear everyday clothes (costume: Mari Benedek). The Mother wears a striped cardigan and a skirt, Night a negligee, Death a light suit, the Thorn bush a flowered shirt, the Lake a light blue Summer dress, with a huge pearl necklace. The Gravedigger wears a simple orange T-shirt, with the name of an American rock band and a photo of a baby with a headphone on it (which - considering the subject - is a rather bizarre idea).

Gyula Fekete: The story of a motherGyula Fekete: The story of a motherWe are in the simple flats of everyday people: the tragedy of the Mother can happen any time, to anyone. She may only imagine everything, which happens after the death of her child, but, as regards the message of the work, it is all the same: the terrible events going on in her soul are very real.

The strange choreography gives the production a unique nature (choreographer: Andrea Ladányi). The characters of the tale symbolize themselves, their qualities with weird, often bizarre movements, bendings, jerks, which ’dances’ are performed during the whole performance (the characters are moving all the time, even when they are not singing).

The rooms are lit variously, having new colours almost continuously; the play of the lights makes an impressive sight.

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Interpreting certain parts of the action - taking place both on emotional and intellectual level - is not easy, when we see the opera for the first time. I think, the authors have deliberately left some questions open, leaving them to the audience to answer.    

The description of Death is strange, for example, just as the relationship between the Mother and Death. The latter is a neat young man here, who arrives as a gentle wanderer. He is not the evil Satan, not the frightening demon; it is already unusual, that the composer wrote this role for a tenor voice. (’I am the gardener of God’ - says Death about himself, which in itself already gives an opportunity for interesting philosophical reflections). He also sings a love duet with the Mother. The woman is clearly attracted to him, which gives us the chance for different kinds of interpretations again. On the one hand, the Mother may have a general desire for a man, maybe for a father for her child, too (whom she had probably raised alone); on the other hand, considering the fact, that it is Death, who personifies the object of her desires, this attraction can also mean, that she wishes to die. If she cannot get her child back, her life is futile for her.  

It is also ambiguous what happens to the Mother at the end of the work. She probably dies, as she has already given away her body and her soul, and the direction also supports this: in the last part of the performance the woman only lies on the floor of her room, motionless, though with open eyes.

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In the role of the Mother we heard Tünde Frankó, who interpreted the woman’s dramatic part full of empathy and convincingly, both vocally and regarding acting. Her voice was balanced in every register and she could sing with the necessary force during the denser orchestral parts, too. As a proof of her strong stage-presence it was enough to watch her expressive look, by which alone she could make her silent acting memorable in the last moments of the piece.

The Lake’s part was sung by operetta singer Anita Lukács, who gave an excellent performance. In her aria di bravura she delighted the audience with shining high notes - soaring up to high E-flat -, which were rewarded by the audience with a thankful applause.

Gyula Fekete: The story of a motherGyula Fekete: The story of a motherIn the role of Night we heard Veronika Nádasi. As I already mentioned before, this time the excellent musical singer was not in an easy situation, because her voice sounded very different, compared to the opera and operetta voices of her two female colleagues. Making her appear in this role probably divided the audience, nevertheless, she gave a good performance.

Death was interpreted by Attila Dolhai, who did not sing badly, but his performance was weaker than I expected. Sometimes he was forcing the high notes, which also led to some off-key notes.

Soma Langer singing the role of the Thorn bush was pretty convincing, his baritone voice asserted itself even among the opera singers.

The smaller role of the Gravedigger was played genuinely by Domonkos Blazsó. 

In case of a new opera it is not easy to review the performance of the orchestra, but I can say for sure, that the Orchestra of the Miskolc National Theatre, conducted by Krisztián Balassa interpreted Gyula Fekete’s splendid music vividly, expressively, contrastingly and producing a homogeneous sound.

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Besides the strong emotions and questions and thoughts whirling in my head, caused by the subject of this work, it also came to my mind after the performance that I would love to see this opera again. In the case of contemporary Hungarian operas it is not always possible, but fortunately this time it will be different: after its premiere in Miskolc the work can be seen again at the Music Academy in Budapest. I recommend every opera fan to take this opportunity.

 

 

Balázs Csák
(www.operaportal.hu)

***

 

12 June, 2015, 8 p.m., Miskolc National Theatre, Grand Theatre

Miskolc Opera Festival

Gyula Fekete:

THE STORY OF A MOTHER

Opera in one act, in Hungarian, after Hans Christian Andersen’s story.

 

World premiere

 

Guest performance of the Budapest Operetta Theatre.

Libretto: Zsuzsa Beney
Set designer: Mária Ambrus
Costumes: Mari Benedek
Musical director: Krisztián Balassa
Assistant director: András Tucker
Musical colleagues: János Mihalics, Péter Axmann, László Szekeres, Dóra Puskás
Choreography: Andrea Ladányi
Conductor: Krisztián Balassa
Director: Sándor Zsótér

 

Cast:

Death – Attila Dolhai
Mother – Tünde Frankó
Thorn bush – Soma Langer
Night – Veronika Nádasi
Lake – Anita Lukács
Gravedigger – Domonkos Blazsó

Orchestra of the Miskolc National Theatre

 

 

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