Erkel Ferenc: Brankovics Gyorgy

I wrote this review several months ago, before I actually thought about making a blog. Since it is already prepared I figured I would post it first.

Erkel Ferenc: Brankovics Gyorgy

Special thanks to Csaba Somogyi for youtube video link here:

Cast Credits (In Hungarian):

Brankovics: Molnár János (bariton)
Murat: Bándi János (tenor)
Gerő: Szakács Levente (tenor)
István: Jordán Éva (szoprán)
Székely György: Sándor Árpád (tenor)
Hunyadi László, Lázár: Kendi Lajos (tenor)
hírnök, Gerő szolgája: Kiss Domokos (tenor)
István szolgája: Szabó Bálint (tenor)
szerb arisztokrata, háremőr: Szilágyi János (tenor)
Mara: B. Konrád Erzsébet (szoprán)
Fruzsina: Mányoki Mária (mezzoszoprán)

Four Acts

SYNOPSIS: Circa 1490. Brankovics is the king of Serbia seeking Hungarian aid against the Ottomans. Mara, his daughter, is in love with Murat, the Ottoman sultan. Murat takes Brakovics’ sons Gero and Istvan as part of a peace treaty and later blinds them leading to the Serbs declaring war on the Turks. Mara, apparently having married Murat is left a widow in the resulting battle and is disowned by her dying father who entrusts his sons to his Hungarian allies.

Running Time: 1 hour 58:30 minutes

ACT 1 (34 minutes)

0-Overture. Starts quietly then waltzes along forlorn, then goes into a kind of happy dance about two and a half minutes in. Some of the melodies will return. Seemingly over at 4:30, prelude goes into menacing climax **.

6: Organ music, we are in church (Serbian church has organs?). Chorus very nice but is it a hymn? Drum, organ returns, parts alternate bass/tenors and women **.

8: Duet between Fruzsina and Mara, obvious anxiety from the latter, former much calmer.

11: Romance (aria) for Mara as she thinks of her beloved Sultan. In the later exchanges with Fruzsina in this scene Mara seems to be day dreaming through the proceedings.

15:30- Organ music returns, flowing into a grand Hungarian-style march ***, perhaps the best number in the entire act and certainly the best thing since the opening chorus. Chorus comes in at the end effectively.

20-Mara greets her father. The action moves from family conversation to an interview with the Hungarians. Chorus comes in briefly around 24:30. But much of the scene, especially Brankovics’ ponderings, are very quiet and the instrumental accompaniment is mostly strings. It’s important to the plot but musically rather dry.

29: Among the delegation is the Sultan Murat, Mara recognizes him, a slight musical climax in which he expresses his love.

30:30-The Serbs go off into a choral-dance number for the remainder of the act, about four minutes in total. Tenors separated from female/bass choir in alternations at points, climax for the last minute of the act is the best part **.

ACT 2 (34:10 minutes)

Scene 1:

0-Perlude is filled with angst, which is strange because we immediately go into a garden scene between Mara and her duenna Fruzsina.

2-Fruzsina gone (forever apparently), Mara goes off into another of her romantic dreams, not very effective.

5:30- Murat arrives and the love duet begins, although at first it really is not all that amorous, and much of it seems to be an aria for Murat with interspersions from Mara, similar to Act 3 scene 1 of Guillaume Tell but with the genders reversed. It gets better around five minutes in, however by that point there is only about three minutes left so what is the point?  The scene is a dud.

Scene 2:

13:30-Low strings and woodwinds then horns starts into Brankovics’ “thinks” aria **. Part of the music sounds like parts of Erkel’s opera Bank Ban. 21-Trumpets come in and the tone changes from doom and thinking to excitement.

22:30-Palm Court music as Murat arrives as the Turkish delegation. The music starts to take on some of the “Turkish” elements it is known for in the exchange between Murat and Brankovics. As the chorus of Serbs comes in it sounds even more Turkish and then as Murat admits to being the Sultan to the amazement of the Serbs the Turkish sounds hit force 8 on the woodwinds. Stereotypical, but effective **. Timpani goes off and Murat demands Mara’s brothers Istvan and Gero be sent to the Turks.

30: The Finale, first the brothers (soprano and tenor, joined by their sister, Murat, and their father, finally the Serbian chorus). Tension is highest at this point, climaxing around 33 minutes as the brothers are taken by Murat from their people***.

ACT 3 (26 minutes)

0-Another prelude, somber solo violin comes in, then the full orchestra **.

2-Brankovics again is thinking in an aria, this time of his sons in the Turkish camp, at 4 the music swells.

5:30- Quiet, then terror. The Hungarian envoy arrives, asking Brankovics to unite his troops with that of Hunyadi. Then he learns that the Turks have blinded his sons, terror turns into despair.

12- Gero arrives, blind. His pleads for his father with a mixture of terror and the utterly pathetic only possible with the tenor voice, and Gero is one **.

14:30-The Hungarians arrive demanding the support of Brankovics.

18:30 Istvan arrives, also blind. His father is devastated *.

22: The Serbs demand war against the Turks, war chorus sounds like it was taken from a Russian opera **. The Serbs will crush the Turks for what they have done, or will they? For four minutes at least it seems that they will! If I did not know that Borodin wrote Prince Igor after Erkel wrote this, I would have thought that someone was stealing!

ACT 4 (24:20 minutes)

0-The final act starts off with a rather pleasant chorus in the Turkish camp, soprano soloist (Mara) **, apart from the scene in Act 2, this is the most “Turkish” number so far, which makes sense since we are in their territory.

3-Duet between Mara and Murat, it takes about two minutes for it to really pick up steam, but when it does it finally pays off ***. Possibly because of the “Turkish” music this duet, their second, is much more effective than the one in act 2. The soprano is not good, but the music is, it sounds a little like Dvorak’s Dimitrij.

13-Timpani, Murat is warned by his second in command that the Serbs and Hungarians have attacked, the battle has begun. Murat says goodbye to Mara and she is left to ponder *.

15-Her brothers are returned to her.

17-Brankovics arrives, briefly, finding his children. The boys are thrilled, Mara is destroyed, Murat has been killed.

18-Gero threatens his sister.

21-Brankovics is brought in mortally wounded. Mara, not being blind, is the first to react. The sons mourn. They are entrusted to Hunyadi, but Mara is forgotten in the last minute by her father as he dies. Typical Erkel ending, which is to say rather good **.

Brankovics Gyorgy in an Hungarian opera, which means that unfortunately there is little information on it that is not in that language. It is however the work of perhaps the greatest 19th century Hungarian composer, Erkel Ferenc, composer of Bank Ban the national opera of Hungary, and of Hunyadi Laszlo, a treasured milestone of Hungarian music. Brankovics is from Erkel’s late period, some thirty years after Hunyadi Laszlo (who is a character in Brankovics) and around 15 years after Bank Ban. The usage of “Turkish” sounding leifmotives for Sultan Murat and the act 4 opening chorus are combined with traditional Hungarian and Serbian melodies. As for the recording, the weakest link is definitely Konrad Erzsebet’s Mara, who is frequently off pitch and seems to be cat wallowing whenever she has a high note. Bandi Janos (Murat) and Molnar Janos (Brankovics) seem to have mastered their roles however and although I usually find bass/baritone arias to be boring, I did not this time for sure! The supporting cast, particularly Manyoki Maria’s Fruzsina (in Acts 1 and 2) and Szakacs Levente’s Gero (in Act 2, especially in Act 3 and to a less extent in Act 4) are also very effective, as well as Jordan Eva’s Istvan. The remaining support (all male and in ethnic Hungarian or Serbian roles) are fine, although the libretto gives them little other than plot forwarding dialogue. The only characters that are fully fleshed out are the cross-cultural lovers Mara and Murat, and the former’s father, Brankovics himself. To them are given all of the arias and there is hardly a duet or ensemble that does not include at least one of the three of them. Interesting note: excluding the chorus numbers (of which there are four plus the second act finale which includes the five principles), either Mara or Brankovics is always on stage.  Fruzsina, Mara’s confidant in Act 1, completely disappears two minutes into the second act and is never seen nor heard from again. Granted, Murat develops more as a character from this point on, perhaps replacing Fruzsina, and the two brother are introduced in the next scene. The Chorus numbers (at the beginning and end of Act 1, the Act 2 Finale, and bookending acts 3 and 4, are probably the best singing numbers in the entire opera although the act four love duet is probably the star of the final scene. The weakest numbers are the duet between Mara and Fruzsina in act 1 (with Mara’s romance) and the act 2 love duet (preceded by  another romance for Mara), which pales in comparison to the melodious duet in the finale act. I do not know if this is because the music itself is subpar for Erkel or if it is because of Konrad Erzsebet’s poor performance as Mara, as I was willing to overlook Konrad for the final love duet because the music was so glorious even with her singing! Psychologically, only Brankovics and Mara have motives that are fully known. Murat, although much better developed than the supporting characters and even the secondary characters, is only completely coherent in the fourth act, by which point he has blinded the two brothers and we are not as fond of him as we were in the first two acts when he is the disguised stranger at the Serbian court in act 1 or the diplomat cum kidnapper in act 2. He remains, both musically and theatrically, the stereotypically ruthless male Muslim “other” and there is a dangerous level of orientalism about the work on this specific point. Murat’s presence is non-existent in the third act and he only appears briefly at the end of the first act, otherwise his role is concentrated in the second act love duet and the truce/abduction sequence which is one of two major places in the score, the other being the opening chorus and the following love duet, where the “Turkish” or “Oriental” music themes are most prominent.  Of the other characters only the brothers, particularly Gero, stand out musically, although their primary purpose is to provide drama to the second and third acts. Mara is, well, a horribly naïve woman who betrays her family and country for a man she hardly knows who then proceeds to destroy everyone elses life including her own. What she could see in a man who just blinded her two brothers is beyond me. It is not only hard to sympathise with her, it is impossible and being the only female of any true importance, and the second most important character in the story period, it is a good thing for Erkel that the chorus numbers are so marvellous. As I have repeatedly said, the impoverished singing of Konrad makes her performance of this unsympathetic character even less convincing. Now to Brankovics himself, his music is wonder, sort of a combination of middle period Verdi and Russian opera. Unfortunately I do not speak Hungarian, so I am not sure what exactly is being said, but it appears as if, particularly in his arias, Brankovics is contemplating and thinking about what has happened, is happening, and will happen. Musically, the opera is mostly beautiful, the one true flaw consisting of any time the prima donna is singing alone, which is to say, around 10% of the opera. However, literally everything the chorus does and Erkel’s music for Brankovics himself along with the vicious Murat and the tragic sons Gergo and Istvan are so gorgeous that it is possible to overlook the terribleness of Konrad Erzsebet’s Mara and enjoy the rest of the production. Yes, Mara, if I were Brankovics I would have forgotten about you too. The end is so prophetic, and ironic. This opera is very obviously Hungarian. The Magyars are the passive good guys ready to supply help, protection, whatever, while the Serbs are desperate (albeit awesome dancers who can pull off a concert number or two), and the Turks are portrayed as basically pure evil. The Serbian princess is a total dunce who endangers her entire family and her country for love and gets all the men in her life either mammed or killed. I can’t stop harping on Mara, so let’s move on to the final review and grade after the 1874 poster for the opera.

brankovics

Alpha minus to beta plus music with a gamma minus and utterly thankless prima donna role sung by an equally less than stellar soprano, one MAJOR plot flaw, while it has one of the best baritone leads I have heard outside of Verdi, a final act love duet that could have been written by Dvorak (another of my favorites!), and chorus numbers worthy of the Bizet.

FINAL GRADE: B, would be better with a different soprano.

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