György Selmeczi: ByzantiumGyörgy Selmeczi: ByzantiumReview of György Selmeczi’s opera Byzantium. The Programme of the Miskolc Opera Festival anticipated the birth of a new national opera in connection with this opera premiere. Of course, national operas are not (or rather, were not) born this way; time and the audience decide about it. However, it is a fact, that a historical topic and certain other features – for example, pathetic style or monumentality – are usually the properties of national operas, just like in the case of György Selmeczi’s opera presented now. The libretto was written by the composer himself and poet Zsuzsa Kapecz. It is based on Ferenc Herczeg’ still popular play Byzantium published in 1904.

The story of the opera takes place on a single day, in May, 1453, in Byzantium. It shows us the last day of the Empire, the hopless struggle of Constantine the Great and his West European mercenaries to resist the Turkish army. However, as a result of the superior strength of the enemy, and even more, the division and the series of betrayals, the Emperor falls, and Byzantium is captured by the Muslims.  

The premiere of the opera took place on the 14th of June, at the Miskolc Summer Theatre, in the guest performance of the Opera House of Cluj-Napoca.

The stage is dominated by one, huge set (stage director: Zalán Zakariás, set and costumes: Edit Zeke). We can see the walls of the Byzantine palace, with stairs in front of it, which is impressive, but – as this is the only thing we can see during the performance – it becomes a bit monotonous after a while. All these are coloured by the beautiful play of the lights (although, the managing of them was not without some minor technical errors this evening). The costumes are stylish and quite eclectic: the Emperor and the Empress wear period dresses, but the courtiers, for example, are in suits, maybe to make us feel that betrayal, intrigue, dissension are eternal human qualities. (However, I was not able to explain the role of the woman in a gas mask, appearing at the beginning and the end of the perfomance.)

György Selmeczi: ByzantiumGyörgy Selmeczi: ByzantiumThe first act begins with a heroic orchestral ouverture, then we find ourselves at a feast in the imperial palace. From the distance we can hear the sounds of the siege, while Zenobia, the court-lady envisions the destroyal of Byzantium. The dependents of the Emperor appear on the scene, they are weaving a plot against their king. The imbecile younger brother of the Emperor, Demeter also appears in the company of the patriarch, who wants to set Demeter on the throne after the defeat. Irene, the Empress blames her husband for the downfall, and is dreaming about a better future. The Emperor, who is exhausted in the battles, tries to put hope into his dependents, but can rely only on his mercenaries and his secret lover, the young Herma. Zenobia and her queen plan to poison the Emperor, but the Empress, tortured by remorse, prevents the murder in the last minute. The sultan sends delegates to the court: Ahmed khan, the younger brother of the sultan and his old master, Lala Kalil. The elderly Turk tells them that the Emperor can be granted a pardon if he ships away leaving his fortune behind. However, the people of Byzantium can keep their faith and their possessions if they yield to the sultan. The dependents are revolting against the Emperor, whose wife is now also waiting for the sultan to ascend the throne. However, Constantine does not compromise, and orders to decapitate Ahmed. The sounds of the bells of the Hagia Sophia foreshadows the terrible end. After the last battle a funeral procession appears. They are bringing the dead Emperor. Seeing him the Empress kills herself.

A romantic story, full of pathos. The charecters are not very complicated: heros, lovers, mercenaries, traitors, petty self-seekers, unmerciful enemy.

It is a grand opera with many characters, maybe too many. It is not possible to go deeply into these characters, to elaborate them, and to unfold their motives, the reason of their actions thoroughly. Most of the characters often appear on the stage, but usually only for a short time, and it is sometimes difficult to follow, who is who and why he or she is there. The protagonists are obviously the Emperor and the Empress, but they do not really have the chance (the time) to develop, either. 

For that reason, I found those scenes to be the strongest, where we got a more detailed picture of the characters’ inner world, as well. First of all, the beautiful aria of the contemplating Empress (’Mystery!’), which can also be a success as a concert aria. The role was played by Brigitta Kele, who is qualified for the role of the Empress not only because of her excellent dramatic soprano voice, but because of her attractive appearance, too. The colour of her voice is beautiful, ringing pleasantly in the more lyrical scenes, and strong enough in the dramatic parts; her high notes are secure. The way she interpreted the controversial nature and the struggle of the Empress was nuanced. Though this controversial behaviour was sometimes difficult to follow. I understand why she wants to poison the Emperor in one moment but prevents it in the next (facing her action she starts to feel guilty). However, before the last battle, becoming enthusiastic about a better future, she can hardly wait for the sultan, and not much later, seeing her dead husband – whom she did not really love, anyway – she commits suicide. Here her motivation is not really clear.

György Selmeczi: ByzantiumGyörgy Selmeczi: ByzantiumSimilarly, the heroic monologue of the Emperor stands out of the music material. The monarch was personified by tenor Zoltán Nyári, who is well-known on the opera stages of Hungary. He is not only an excellent tenor voice but also a fine actor. The character of the Emperor (’a Don Quijote-like man’, as the composer described him to me) is less complicated than his wife. Zoltán Nyári’s dramatic tenor voice could come into full display in this demanding role, and he could sing over the orchestra even when it was playing forte during the monarch’s desperate bursts of fury. Besides playing the heroic figure he was emphatic in the lyrical scenes, too (above all in his duet with Herma).  

Zenobia, the court-lady, the Empress’ confidant was interpreted by Bernadett Wiedemann, who really needs no introduction. Our excellent mezzo-soprano was singing her part with immense power, and it is a pity, that she only had one aria in this work. She even made a deep impression on us in this single scene alone, although her dramatic monologue is not as easy to receive at first hearing, as the monologue of the Empress. (As conductor Gergely Kesselyák, who I was talking to after the performance, told me: ’in this aria the dissonance of the countermelodies takes the scene towards a more intellectual direction’.)

The smaller role of Herma was also made notable by coloratura soprano Covacinschi Yolanda, who interpreted the loving girl, fearing for the Emperor, with intimate lyricism. (She did it especially beautifully in the scene, where she was keeping vigil with her king.)

The role of Demeter, the mentally deficient, blood-thirsty younger brother of the Emperor was presented in the clever, though, sometimes exaggerated, almost caricature-like performance of Zsombor Rétyi. (It was probably the director who was responsible for these exaggerations. The overemphasized scene, where Demeter was pulled being chained up by the partiarch also makes it probable.)

Not only the main protagonists but the other singers were good, as well; it is obvious that the production was preceded by a careful selection and a thorough preparation.

György Selmeczi: ByzantiumGyörgy Selmeczi: ByzantiumAll the treacherous officials plotting against the Emperor and fearing the fall, gave a very good performance: baritone Sándor Balla in the role of Spiridon, the groom of the stole, baritone Csaba Sándor interpreting Admiral Laskaris, bass László Mányoki singing the role of Krates, the court philosopher, and tenor Levente Szabó as Lysander, the court poet.

Bass-baritone Róbert Laczkó Vass also interpreted well the buffo character of Mursaphos, the unscrupulous merchant (who is eager to get the Byzantine royal diamonds). The trader’s small arioso is amusing (’One little money, two little money’, the tune of which is then echoed by the choir).

With his heroic bass-baritone voice Árpád Sándor was also genuine in the role of Giovanni Giustiniani, the Genoese mercenary being loyal to the Emperor.

I also have to praise the two bass singers: János Szilágyi, the patriarch, who hates Rome, and Sándor Köpeczi, who impersonated Lala Kalil, the envoy of the sultan. (The other envoy, Ahmed, the cousin of the sultan is a silent role.)

Besides the arias and duets mentioned above the orchestral ouverture was also impressive, just like the electrifying grand scene at the end of Act I, where the Emperor – at this stage – escapes death (the Empress smashes the cup of poison out of his hand) during the thundering harmonies of destiny played by the orchestra. 

It is also worth mentioning the sound of the bells (the bells of Byzantium) heard at the beginning of the second act, which is one of the climaxes of the piece. As Gergely Kesselyák explained to me, it is a separate, electronic music composition. The bell sounds were recorded at different great Hungarian cathedrals. The final composition was made by using these sounds and mixing them. During the performance, first it was played from a record, then continued live by the bells of the orchestra (and later by the beautiful, ominous melody of the strings joining in).  

Besides the well-written musical parts there were examples of more banal solutions, too, like the not very imaginative song of the choir (’Death, death!’), recurring too many times.  

György Selmeczi: ByzantiumGyörgy Selmeczi: ByzantiumIt has been the concept of the Opera Festival for three years to present ’popular operas’, that is, works easily acceptable for wider audiences, combining ’the popularity of musicals with the highest aesthetic aspirations of classical music’ (quote from the Manifesto of the Bartók Plus Opera Festival). As the composer of Byzantium was invited to write this opera by the Festival, it should obviously also meet those requirements mentioned, which, in my opinion was only partially done. One reason for this was, that besides the already mentioned impressive arias, duets and orchestral parts, the opera was dominated too much by recitativo-like parts, which are usually more difficult for the audience to receive.

György Selmeczi’s opera is not really distinguished by its innovative intention. It is rather the already existing European and Hungarian music tradition that the composer used – with unmistakable references to Bartók’s music -, but this tradition was coalesced into a homogeneous sound successfully. (When the envoys appear on the stage, we can also hear some Eastern-type music, but these are rather short motives and references, to convey the appropriate atmosphere.)

Singing the choral parts in this opera is a big challange, and the Choir of the Opera House of Cluj-Napoca was up to its task. They were well prepared, they were singing accurately and acting wholeheartedly. 

The score also put the orchestra to the test. I asked conductor Gergely Kesselyák about it again, who told me that the orchestral parts are not very difficult in themselves, but the orchestration, and the fact that the musical structure is mosaic-like, does make it difficult. This material is characterized by short musical units, tempi, rhythms and music phrases changing fast, and alternating constantly among the different instruments. The rhythmic material and the melodies are put together out of these brief parts, which, in the end, have to be organized under a musical arc by the conductor. I must add, that it was done successfully, the orchestra of the Hungarian Opera of Cluj-Napoca was playing multifarously, vividly and – as much as I can judge it in the case of an opera heard for the first time – accurately.  

The importance of the fact, that a new Hungarian opera was born, cannot be overestimated. It is obviously a notable work, and in time it will turn out, how notable it is, and if it can remain in the repertoire for long.

Balázs Csák

(www.operaportal.hu)

***

 

14 June, 2014, Miskolc, Summer Theatre – Miskolc Opera Festival

 

György Selmeczi:

 

BYZANTIUM

 

opera in two acts

 

Libretto by Zsuzsa Kapecz and György Selmeczi based on Ferenc Herczeg’s play of the same title.

Guest performance of the Hungarian Opera of Cluj-Napoca.

 

Set and costume: Edit Zeke
Chorus master: Szabolcs Kulcsár
Leader of orchestra: Sándor Barabás, Endre Ferenczi
Répétiteur: Katalin Incze G., Ibolya Nagy, Gergő Nagy
Stage-manager: Péter Venczel
Prompter: Bea Terebesi
Conductor: Gergely Kesselyák
Stage director: Zalán Zakariás

 

 

Cast:

Constantine, Emperor – Zoltán Nyári

Irene, Empress – Brigitta Kele

Demeter, the Emperor’s younger brother – Zsombor Rétyi

Spiridion, groom of the stole – Sándor Balla

Zenóbia, the Empress’ confidant – Bernadett Wiedemann

Patriarch – János Szilágyi

Admiral Laskaris – Csaba Sándor

Lysander, court poet – Levente Szabó

Krates, court philosopher – László Mányoki

Mursaphos, merchant – Róbert Laczkó Vass

Giovanni, Genoese mercenary – Árpád Sándor

Herma - Covacinschi Yolanda

Kalil, envoy of the sultan – Sándor Köpeczi

Ahmed, cousin of the sultan – Silent role

Performed by the orchestra and the choir of the Hungarian Opera of Cluj-Napoca.

 

 

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