Grand Opera in three acts. Running Time: 2 hours 20 minutes.
Okay, this intro is long (over 500 words) however, this opera requires some pre-review critiquing of its myriad productions and of the historical events and legends that the plot revolves around.
I have a confession to make: I both love and hate this opera. The music is mesmerizing (if reliant on a cosmopolitan mix of stock Italianisms heavily influenced by Meyerbeer as well as native Hungarian elements, although the orchestration has been almost universally praised for its extreme depth), the plot is delicious (if incredibly far-fetched), but the way it is generally staged almost always infuriates me. This is partially because the opera exists in two very radically distinctive versions, one written by Erkel himself and the other a more frequently performed 1939 revision more closely based on the play by Katona Jozsef upon which the libretto is based. The modifications include a totally different beginning and ending to the first act, dropping the original ending of the second act in which the King returns just after Gertrude’s assassination and arrests courtiers innocent of the crime (much of the music is moved to the third act), the third act starts differently and the role of Peter, the leader of the conspiracy of noblemen, is larger. During World War II changes were also made to the vocal distribution and both the title role and Otto were given to baritones (a change that proved incredibly unpopular but undertaken because of an apparent lack of tenors at the Budapest Opera). After the war this was quickly changed back to the way the music was written although the other changes to the score were retained. This revision, which was obviously not authorized by the composer as it was produced decades after his death, has been so popular that it is almost impossible to find a complete recording of the original score. This live performance from 2018 is considered to be of the unadulterated original score and it is longer than any other available recording, although even it is not close to the apparent 3 hour original running time and the two movement ballet in the first act has definitely been removed along with a duet for Bank and Peter in the first act which is included in the revised version, but isn’t in the original score. When additions need to be made I supplemented listen to this production with the 1969 Hungeroton definitive recording of the revised version. Another problem is that for some reason Budapest has decided to give the role of Bank back to the baritones, which is freaking annoying both because I am a tenor, and because the role was written specifically for a tenor, not a baritone. Why do producers take such liberties? So for this review, I’ve actually looked at three different recordings, the 2018, the 1969, and a 1962 recording.
AND NOW A LESSON FROM HISTORIAN PHIL:
The circumstances of the Queen’s assassination are very different from what occurs in the opera as Gertrude was actually disembowelled during a hunt in a forest of the Pilis Mountains of North-Central Hungary during an attack in which her brother narrowly escaped with his life. The legend is that this was done on the order of Bank Ban, a prince who had been appointed as viceroy while Gertrude’s husband, King Andrew II of Hungary, was on Crusade, because his wife had been raped by her brother at Gertrude’s encouragement while Bank Ban was sent by the Queen to survey the country. What is more likely is that Gertrude was assassinated by the Hungarian nobles because she had given away over one-third of the territory of the Kingdom of Hungary at the time to her German court favourites (the Queen herself was actually German, the daughter of a Bavarian count who had been elevated to the Dukedom of Merania, today the area around Rijeka, Croatia). She is believed to have been 28 years old at the time of her death.
SETTING: Hungary, 1213. Stand by for one of opera’s most horrifying non-supernatural plots! While King Endre II is away on Crusade, his Queen Gertrude leads a debouched court life as the country falls into extreme poverty and encourages her brother Otto to drug and rape Melinda, the wife of Bank Ban, who has been appointed as regent in the King’s absence. When Bank confronts Gertrude she taunts him for his wife now being considered a whore at court and he repeatedly stabs her to death amid her blood curdling screams. Meanwhile, Melinda has gone insane as a result of her sexual assault and drowns herself and her child in the River Tisza. Their bodies are discovered and brought into the royal chapel during the Queen’s funeral and the King decides that Bank has suffered enough.
LOOK OUT FOR:
ACT 1: (50 minutes)
0: The prelude ** starts off with a gentle movement in the strings in 4/8 time and is so refined that it gives little indication of the extreme criminality that will be depicted in the rest of the opera.
Scene 1: The Hungarian Royal Court, Visegrad.
3: The opera proper originally starts with a standard opening chorus * of courtiers praising Queen Gertrude, who comes out looking like a combination of King Triton and albino RuPaul. In the revision, the opera starts with a dialogue between Otto and Biberach about how he wants to seduce Melinda. Also in the revision, this chorus occurs after the drinking song described below.
7: Peter wants to overthrow the evil Queen but the nobles ask him for a drinking song and he obliges begrudgingly **. He sets up the plot, almost like a narrator, and informs us that he has informed Bank Ban of what the Queen is doing (giving land to her German friends, making the Hungarian nobles foreigners in their own country, the threat of the Queen’s brother Otto’s attentions on Bank’s own wife) and that Bank is about to return to court. In the revision there is a duet ** here for Bank and Peter in which the latter informs the former as to what has been going on at court. This doesn’t exist in the original version for some reason. It is nice, but extremely derivative with hardly an original bar and features that are obviously copied from other operas.
13: Otto engages in some on-stage public harassment of Melinda, the Queen encourages both Otto’s assault on Melinda and tells the girl to not resist him. This prompts an “ensemble” (literally that is what the number is called in the score) in which the various characters we have already met express their feelings/desires, most of it saved from oblivion by Melinda’s vocal line * in a blatant parody of Italian opera that lacks much dramatic conviction.
19: The Court greets the news of Endre’s victory over the Galicians with a serviceable chorus, charming in its own mild way *. The ballet should be here, but isn’t. From recordings of the alternate version we know this is in two movements: the first, a German dance, is utterly dull but the Csardas which follows is energetic enough for a star *.
20: Otto continues his creepy assault on Melinda in a surprisingly good duet ** as it provides Melinda yet another opportunity to demonstrate how both personally and musically she is too good for this world. Otto’s music lacks any reference to the fact that he is obviously a rapist (and possibly also a serial killer?). Instead Erkel flops about like a walk on a sunny day. Otto’s henchman Biberach pops in as Otto kneels before Melinda who then going into a rather feminist gender equality public service announcement about how when Bank proposed to her he did not kneel but stood before her looking her in the eye as nobly as Julius Caesar. For Hungarians, those who kneel are either praying, or are liars. She leaves and Biberach says that they can trick Melinda into drinking a drugged drink so Otto can rape her. This turns out to be a trap: Biberach is using Otto’s vile attraction to Melinda to destroy the royal family.
33: Bank finally arrives, disgusted with the Queen, and sings a lovely French-style romance about Melinda ***.
38: Bank lashes out at the behaviour of Queen Gertrude *.
41: The court returns, Melinda tries to leave early and gets singled out for bullying by Gertrude. As the courtiers sing insulin depriving sweet nothings to Melinda, Otto continues to physically assault her. Overall a depressing end to the act salvaged only by Melinda’s sweet vocal lines *.
ACT 2: (55 minutes)
Scene 1: A room in the royal palace.
1: So while Otto is raping the drugged Melinda, Bank goes into a patriotic bit about how much he loves Hungary **. It sounds better sung by a tenor. He decides to place his grievances before Gertrude, and if she doesn’t accept them….
11: Bank’s vassal Tiborc tells him about the poverty that plagues the country, and that many years ago he saved Bank’s life * during an attack by a Venetian.
14: Melinda comes on and begs her husband to kill her for betraying him *** and the first blatantly Meyerbeerian influence appears in the form of, wait for it, a viola d’amore (!) after Bank curses their son and said son appears. Melinda continues to beg for death, now to a combination of a violin an cimbalom (the first time this specifically Hungarian instrument had specially composed music produced for stage performance).
20, 29: Bank has serious difficulties accepting his wife back now that Otto has used her like toilet paper in a beautiful duet ***. He orders Tiborc to take Melinda and the child back to his castle to the east of the River Tisza (Eastern Hungary). They say goodbye to a return of the cimbalom *** which turns into an intermezzo.
Scene 2: Queen Gertrude’s chambers.
34: And now, the confrontation scene to end all theatrical confrontations *** as Bank and Gertrude exchange some of the most vicious insults in all opera at each other. At first Gertrude engages in a boat load of scare tactics playing on his honour, which he throws back at her by demonstrating how she and her brother have already violated his honour beyond anything he could ever do to her, including killing her. She slowly starts to realize that she has no chance, but continues to play as if she has the upper hand. She tries to send him away but he throws her and declares everything that she has done, turning his wife into a whore, selling the king’s lands to foreigners, as she tries to deflect blame from herself. Otto bursts in having heard her screams but Bank overpowers him as Gertrude tries to pull a dagger on Bank who calls her a whore and a procuress (specifically the word is “kerítőnő” or “brothel-keeper”) and then stabs her has she screams “Segítség!” the Hungarian word for “Help”.
46, 50: Courtiers break down the door and the nobles flood the room oddly pleased with the sudden violent turn of events. They embark on a prayer to the Almighty **. King Endre finally arrives to find his queen assassinated. Knowing what we do about how horrid Gertrude was, it is difficult to not burst into laughter over Andrew’s demand for revenge * over the murder of such a filthy dog of a woman. Peter and several other noblemen are arrested for the supposed conspiracy. It is an aria con coro worthy of Verdi, but the sentiment of the words border on the laughable.
ACT 3: (34 minutes)
Scene 1: The shore of the River Tisza.
3, 12, 17: The prelude sets up a fifteen minute long mad scene for Melinda *** as she fantasizes that her child is much smaller and Tiborc slowly starts to realize that they aren’t going to make it to Bank’s castle. Melinda’s fantasy consists of a story about two birds who built a nest together (obviously herself and Bank). The male left the female under a guardian who killed the female bird with a poisoned arrow to the heart. It turns to high drama as Melinda realizes the severity of her adultery and that only her death can expiate her crime. She then sings a lullaby *** to her son which includes a quotation from Erkel’s earlier opera Hunyadi Laszlo. Tiborc tries to get her to board a boat so they can cross the river but supernatural voices warn her not to get into the boat. The cimbalom returns *** as she enters one last mad cycle, grabs her son and plunges into the river.
Scene 2: The royal chapel, the funeral of Queen Gertrude in progress.
19, 32: The last scene * starts with a funeral chorus (male) as the Queen’s coffin is placed in the crypt and the King refuses to weep. Peter has been slain by a nobleman who took matters into his own hands. He also presents proof that the Queen had wronged the nobles when Bank’s letter is discovered. Although he acknowledges that she was in the wrong, he then rather illogically praises his wife. Bank arrives and declares that he killed Gertrude. The King tries to order his arrest but Bank tells him that only the nation can judge him. Suddenly Tiborc arrives with the corpses of Melinda and her son. The King realizes that Bank has lost everything he held dear, and so declares that Bank has suffered enough **. Curtain.
I am upset with this production. Not with the music, with this specific production. It takes far too many liberties with Erkel’s music while at the same time being closer in terms of completeness (score integrity) than probably any recorded reproduction of the opera. The lead role is supposed to be sung by a tenor, it is irrational and even melodically damaging for it to be transposed to a baritone. The assassination is rarely projected correctly due to Hungarian cultural sensibilities against depicting the murder of a Queen/woman which I suppose we just have to put up with until the opera gets produced in some less female-friendly country like the United States. Just don’t get me started on how Bank kills Gertrude by sitting on her in this production! Ugh! The King’s overblown reaction to the death of his wife and his preoccupation with hunting down her killer is more than a mildly amusing since we know that she was horrid but he is apparently oblivious. What is more, King Andrew is the only character who really is just a total bore. Not that the other characters aren’t dreadful in their own way. Melinda is obviously a sane woman who is rendered mad by her bodily violation by the disgusting Otto thanks to the creepy Biberach and his walking drug mart. Bank himself is probably the most sympathetic of the characters along with the secondary Tiborc. Musically the opera is a very cosmopolitan mix with variant results. Most of the score consists of stock-level Italian and French operatic gestures which are okay, but the Hungarian elements, especially in the orchestration, hold up rather well. Erkel is able to bring on a great dramatic moment when called to do so such as Bank’s romance in act 1, his duets with Melinda and Gertrude in the second act, and Melinda’s grand scena in the final act. However, in the first act especially, some of the numbers survive only because of the loveliness of Melinda’s vocal lines, and not much else. Overall Bánk Bán is the great Hungarian National Opera, the treasure of the nation, and for that alone I can give it an A- almost it might touch an A for some people although I personally consider Hunyadi Laszlo better.