Opera in two acts. Running Time: 2 hours 13 minutes.
This was Erkel’s first opera, commissioned in 1838. Actually it was also the first true opera in Hungarian as prior to this score all Hungarian-language operas were actually singspiels. The Maria of the title is fictional but based on Ines de Castro, mistress of King Peter I of Portugal, as well as the purportedly Sicilian wife of King Stephen (Istvan) II of Hungary, the son of the early 12th century King Coloman in this opera, although Stephen’s wife was not murdered by jealous courtiers. The plot is rather stereotypical: boy marries girl, girl meets father-in-law, girl gets murdered by wicked courtiers, boy swears vengeance on killers. The vocal distribution is incredibly unoriginal: five basses, three tenors, and a lone soprano. However, the two main parts, Maria and the tenor role of Prince Istvan are unusually both high and long and only in one scene does the heavy usage of the bass voice start to grade on the listener. The score is heavily influenced by French, Italian, and German styles of the day (particularly Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, Weber, and in the climactic interview between Maria and the King, Meyerbeer) with some influence from the Hungarian verbunkos tradition although this is not as apparent as in Erkel’s later operas.
SETTING: Budapest and Castle Leanyvar in North-Central Hungary, early 12th century. Widower Crown Prince Istvan wants to marry his mistress Maria Batori but two royal councillors plot to to keep the Prince from marrying her because they don’t like the idea of her children taking the throne over the sons of Istvan’s first wife for little logical reason. She is questioned by the King while Istvan and her brother are on a hunt and although the King approves of her because of the bravery she projected when answering, she is brutally murdered by the councillors and the Prince and her brother swear to vengeance on her killers.
LOOK OUT FOR:
ACT 1: (71 minutes)
0: The overture *, moves from dark and gloomy (a theme that returns at the end of the opera) to bright to dramatic to more bright. It is a little stilted, but also has a uniquely forlorn tone which defies its obviously Italian models.
Scene 1: A market square in Buda.
9: Szenden, mikent lenge The typical opening chorus but with a twist ** as everyone awaits the return of the victorious Istvan.
15: Itt jon a kiralyfi The Prince arrives to a jovial choral march *. He addresses the populace.
19: Lattam, hazam, szetdult An aria con coro for Istvan *. It does have a rousing finish. The King tells him he must marry again soon.
26: O dicso nap! Istvan says he has already chosen Maria Batori who is rejected by the two councillors Arval and Szepelik (our villains) amid music dramatic music. They embark on a quartetto con coro **. Szepelik sends a spy after the Prince as he goes off to Leanyvarra (a castle) after the King curses his son for his relationship with Maria.
Scene 2: Court of Leanyvar, a garden with chapel.
38: Vihar duhong a hon After a gentle orchestral introduction, a standard recitative from Maria and a fugal chorus we have a romanza ** for Maria. Trumpets announce the arrival of Istvan and Maria runs off to embrace him.
45: Mily boldogito a hu The chorus comments on Maria’s love and how only in being alone together do lovers find their only happiness *.
51: Mily egi udv mind A duet for Maria and Istvan * is followed by his proposal in recitative. At first she worries about what the court will think but eventually she consents.
59: Uram it kivansz? The act finale **: Istavan announces the ceremony to the courtiers who then sing a slow but lovely bridal chorus during which the spy comments that this tasty bit of news will infuriate the Councillors. The couple returns from the ceremony with Maria a little more worried than she should be. The courtiers break into a Hungarian dance.
ACT 2: (62 minutes)
Scene 1 (of 5): A hall in Leanyvar.
0: Derulj fel, asszonyunk, The act begins with a slightly foreboding “cheer-up” chorus as Maria is still really worried *.
8: Az artatlan, kinek szivet Maria comes on and declares that although she has given herself body and soul to love, she fears that only heaven can possibly save her. She calls away fear in a more jovial cabaletta **.
14: Kedves nom! In a trio * we are introduced to Maria’s brother Miklos (why have we not heard of him before?) and he and Istvan go on a hunt for no apparent reason than for its own sake which terrifies Maria anew.
Scene 2: Council Hall of Buda Castle.
22, 28, 31: Mi hir Leanyvart?/Halal fejere/A Beke angyala Arvai and Szepelik keep telling the King about all the horrors Maria has inflicted upon Istvan by her simple existence trying to get him to order her execution *. The spy arrives revealing the secret wedding and the King in a moment of anger contemplates having Maria executed, but retracts the order declaring that it is sinful to have a woman killed simply for loving a man, the most natural of things. But eventually the Councillors win him over * with the idea that Maria’s non-noble family has produced heirs to the throne of the House of Arpad. To stop the succession of her sons, they must execute their mother. The scene finally strikes up a more energetic tone * and we get one possible motivation from Szepelik for all this desired violence against this particular woman: she apparently turned down a proposal of marriage from Szepelik.
Scene 3: Royal hunting camp in the forest.
33, 35, 38: Hajtsd, hajtsd utan/Mily isteni elte van/Bort, szerlemet enekeljunk With only 29 minutes left it does seem slightly odd that we have three scenes left and suddenly a series of filler hunting choruses for the male chorus *. Two songs: led by Miklos, the first about the joy of hunting *, the second about wine **. The last is cut short by Istvan becoming extremely worried and the two men rushing off to return to Leanyvar.
Scene 4: Hall at Leanyvar.
44, 47: Udvozollek lakomban/Istenem! te latod lelkemet, The interview between Maria and the King is the climactic moment of the opera: After the opening in with the King discusses with Arval that if Maria repents of her sinful marriage she will not be harmed 1) Maria arrives and welcomes the King to Leanyvar **, he addresses her crime against the throne and that an executioner has come to kill her, she recoils, declaring that she never intended to allow her sons near inheriting the crown but was only ever guided by her love for Istvan. She also declares that to be murdered in private and not charged openly in public is the work not of a just Crown but of criminals far worse than she. 2) She prays and confronts her accusers ***, the King tells her to prepare for death. She declares that Szepelik is a rejected former suitor and that Arvai wants to punish her for losing his place in court. She begs him to think of his grandsons. This does change the King’s mind and he pardons her. Arvai and Szepelik decide to take matters into their own hands and have Maria killed anyways.
Scene 5: Maria’s chamber.
56, 59, 60: Irgalomnak atyja! O Istvan, a csok vegso vala/Jaj nekem Maria’s prayer ** jut before the conspirators stab her and she declares that her last kiss to Istvan was her last kiss *. In the final moments (a return of the opening forlorn theme from the overture **) Maria is held once more by the just arrived Istvan before she expires and he and Miklos swear vengeance upon Maria’s killers.
This was a good first attempt at the creation of not just a Hungarian opera that could in theory stand up to the expectations of the time, but also a highly cosmopolitan work combining various international musical influences in a fluent manner. Although only the interview scene really rises to the level of operatic greatness, and some of the numbers lack any discernible melody, this is more than just a Magyar aping of Western European music. The story is simple and if the second act scene changes become a bit too serial, the music does maintain a level of continuity (the last two tableaux are in fact part of the same number). Overall a B+.