Erkel Ferenc: Brankovics Gyorgy (1874)

The timer counts on this review (the earliest) have needed revision, hopefully this streamlines each act.

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

LOOK OUT FOR:

ACT 1 (34 minutes)

0: The prelude and opening choral * starts quietly then waltzes along forlorn, then goes into a kind of happy dance. It pauses before a menacing climax and then we here organ music, we are in church (a Serbian church having an organ?). The singing is very nice but is it a hymn? Still forelorn. Sort of a sad counterpart to the opening of Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg. Brankovics’ daughter, Mara, and her duenna Fruzcina come on in an ornery exchange. Mara has a romance of tertiary merit in which she seems to be day dreaming about Sultan Murat through the proceedings. In fact, she seems to always be in a daze.

15: Finally the organ comes to the rescue, flowing into a grand Hungarian march ***, the best number of the act, possibly in the entire opera with the chorus coming in at the end.

20: Brankovics greets his daughter * and the action moves from family conversation to a long and dry interview with the Hungarians with the only thing of interest coming from the orchestra, if that. Among the delegation is the Sultan Murat in disguise. Mara recognizes him (you can not miss this moment even if you don’t understand Hungarian as there is an extremely mild musical climax).

31: The Serbs go off into a choral-dance number for the remainder of the act, about three 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:

8: The act opens to some orchestral angst, which is strange because we immediately go into a garden scene between Mara and Fruzsina. The latter quickly leaves (forever apparently), and Mara is off into another of her romantic dreams, none of this is very effective, in fact the scene is rather ornery overall although the main melody will return. 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 and not even remotely so good as Rossini.

Scene 2:

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

26: We then have some courtly andante music as Murat arrives as the Turkish delegation. The music is at first somewhat regal before taking on the “Turkish” element (in the flute) this specific score 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 reveals himself to be the Sultan to the amazement of the Serbs. The timpani starts working as 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). The brothers are taken hostage by Murat (although why he does not take Mara alone instead is bizarre).

ACT 3 (26 minutes)

2: A somber solo cello comes in on the theme of the previous act finale, then the full orchestra (all quietly) before we have Brankovics again praying for his sons in the Turkish camp rather poignantly ** in a long scene involving him alone and later with the Hungarian envoy. After a moment of silence, followed by a timpani and the furious arrival of the Hungarian envoy, asking Brankovics to unite his troops with that of Hunyadi. He then learns from the envoy that the Turks have blinded his sons, terror turns into despair.

12: Gero’s arrival and pleading with his father ***.  A mixture of terror and the utterly pathetic only possible with the tenor voice as he asks what has happened to the light. The Hungarians arrive in full force demanding the support of Brankovics.

18: Istvan arrives, also blind. His father is devastated although this time the element of surprise and utter horror is no longer present *.

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: The miserable finale * commences with timpani and a warning for Murat by his second in command that the Serbs and Hungarians have attacked; the last battle begun. Murat says goodbye to Mara without ceremony and she is left to ponder as the drums strike outside. Somehow her father, Gero, and Istvan find her, and Mara is destroyed by the news that Murat has been killed in battle. There is an altercation between Mara and her brother Gero when he discovers that she knew about their being blinded and did nothing.

21: Brankovics is brought in mortally wounded. Mara, not being blind, is the first to react. The sons mourn and they are both entrusted to Hunyadi, but Mara is forgotten by her father in his last words **. How I wish we could also.

COMMENTS:

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, and this is proves fatal. 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. Frankly I hate you! 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, at this point I don’t think a different soprano would change my opinion.

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