Opera in three acts (sometimes given in four acts). Running Time: 2 hours 33 minutes.
Although Batori Maria was his first opera, and Bank Ban is the Hungarian national opera, I consider Hunyadi Laszlo to be Erkel’s masterpiece and the first great Hungarian opera (although is there much competition? I mean if one googles “Hungarian opera” and you remove the operettas, all that are left are the other Erkel operas and Bela Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle). Although longer than either of the operas Erkel produced before and after it, it has a certainty and assurance of melodic inspiration which if not for the language-barrier could easily rival any opera that is in the standard repertoire. It was also the first opera by Erkel I ever heard, even before Bank Ban, and incidentally the only one that I have in my personal collection. Although Bank Ban contains some music which does advance beyond Hunyadi Laszlo and is of a greater power, taken in total this is certainly the better opera. I am reviewing the Hungaroton release with Sylvia Sass as Erzsebet because it is basically complete, unlike any other recording like the 2012 live performance from Budapest available on YouTube which has cut around twenty-five minutes from the score and for some reason decided to hire a mezzo-soprano to play the minder of the child Matyas Hunyadi, a future king of Hungary, rather than as the youth Matyas himself. I guess it works at the end of the opera.
NOTE: The only really problem with this opera is that no two productions can agree upon just how many scenes and acts it is supposed to be divided into, or just how many numbers a performance of it should consist. Here I am going to be extremely conservative and use the minimal number of divisions (seven scenes) including two in act 1, a single tableau for act 2, and four for act three provided by Hungaroton, but the opera can be divided into as many as twelve separate tableaux, and up to four acts by splitting the third in half. There are twenty-two musical numbers, technically, although there are many options about where some of them are positioned and which can be dropped or added at the whim of the conductor. This is problematic only because there is no way of establishing a definitive version (even the original score doesn’t include several numbers that are now considered standard). In any case, the music itself is just great.
SETTING: Transylvania and Budapest, 1456-1457. After being pardoned for the killing of King Laszlo’s advisor and uncle the Count of Celje, after the Count’s plot to wipeout the Hunyadi family is discovered, Laszlo Hunyadi is arrested when the King becomes infatuated with his fiancee, Maria Gara, the daughter of the scheming Chancellor Gara who will do anything to make his daughter the Queen Consort. Eventually Hunyadi is executed and Maria is forced to marry the King against her will.
LINK to video of 2012 production from Budapest (this is not the performance being reviewed but it is referenced and supplements the Hungaroton recording in places, also it includes English subtitles):
Oh, and before I forget because I failed to do this for Batori Maria, the Hungarian-English libretto!
LOOK OUT FOR:
ACT 1: (56 minutes)
0: The Overture *** is a remarkable masterwork on orchestration and never a dull moment for over twelve solid minutes. It consists of a series of themes that will return later in the opera representing Laszlo, his fiancée Maria, his mother Erzsebet, the King who just happens to also be named Laszlo, and Maria’s father the villainous Chancellor Gara.
Scene 1: The battlements of the Hunyadi Castle (the relatively famous Corvin Castle in Transylvania), 1456.
12: The opening chorus ** of rebellious guards (they don’t like the King, although they are faithful to Hunyadi).
15: A cavatina for Matyas with a brilliant cabaletta ***.
21: The guards are informed by Laszlo that the King has appointed the Count of Celje as governor to replace his father, which outrages the men **. Also, the King and the Count are coming to the Castle.
25: One of opera’s most amusing march tunes ***, as the Royal Court arrive and King Laszlo gives his address to the men. Although both the King and the hero in the piece are named Laszlo and are both sung by tenors, Erkel makes it easy to tell them apart by giving them highly distinctive music (King Laszlo is generally a much higher role and his delivery is closer to melodic comic opera, whereas Hunyadi is more heroic sounding and more declamatory, closer to grand opera technique). Some of this recitative is a little boring, but it is recitative after all!
30: The two Laszlo-i speak to each other **, followed by a return of the march tune.
32: The scene ends with an amusing bit of Hungarian anti-Germanism as they keep the King’s German mercenary troops locked out of the castle **.
Scene 2: A hall in the Castle connecting to various bedchambers.
34: The King and Celje are infuriated over what has happened with the German mercenaries in a duet which is furious and all over the place *. It is okay, but certainly the weakest item of the act. They go over a plan to kill the Hunyadis and their allies, but the King demands that the murderous act be bloodless, so Celje suggests poisoned wine and that the King give him his ring to sign the death warrant.
38: Now we have one of the strongest items, a beautiful tenor romance for Hunyadi as he fantasizes about seeing his fiancee Maria again ***.
46, 49, 51, 55: The act finale starts with a dialogue between Hunyadi and his ally Rozgonyi and they discover Celje’s plan to murder the Hunyadi family. The guards are infuriated (repeat of their chorus from earlier, different lyrics **). Celje arrives and converses with Laszlo (not the king) and is confronted about the signed death warrant during which Hunyadi’s men break in and stab Celje ** who curses Laszlo (Hunyadi that is) as he dies. The King shows up and is horrified ** and curses them as they sing praises to him ***.
ACT 2: A Hall in Hunyadi Palace, Temesvar, 1456. (47 minutes)
0: Although an aria for Maria frequently starts the act (it is basically a reworking of Matyas’ cavatina in the first act but set to soprano register with different lyrics and was a modification of the original score rather than part of the original concept), here we have a magnificent but brief prelude leading to a beautiful female chorus ***. Matyas returns for a brief ariosos to a similar melody and then the chorus repeats. It seems to betray similarities to the Spinning Chorus in The Flying Dutchman. Also, what is up with operas postponing the appearance of their leading female characters until the second act?
The alternate aria ** is a little strange, as the very catchy cavatina turns into a duet for Maria and Matyas’ nanny (who sort of works around the action rather than actually contributing to anything other than to tell people when people are coming or going). It feels a little Trekie, a serves no dramatic purpose at all other than to provide the soprano with an “Elisabeth in Tannhauser” run on appearance at the start of the second act. The prelude itself is rather dark in comparison to the magnificent opening originally written for the act.
3: Mint a tenger Now, the greatest soprano aria in all Hungarian opera *** as we meet the opera’s true leading lady, Laszlo’s mother Erzsebet as she awaits the return of her son and prayers to the Almighty for peace between him and the King. But, she also predicts the execution of her son (which she has already seen in haunting nightmares). Eventually she turns a more lyrical page as she describes how she will beg mercy of the King and gain her son’s release.
15: The King arrives to his theme music, which is great but I’ve already given it three stars so I won’t bother again. Erzsebet works around a peace with the King who discovers Maria to a lovely choral passage ** and embarks on a brief recitative with her, followed by a repeat of the chorus. Gara realizes that the King is in his power because he has fallen for Maria.
17: In the revision Gara has a recitative describing his plot (he will marry Maria off to the King and figure out some way to get rid of Hunyadi so Maria is left without any option other than the King). The Hungaroton recording simply includes Gara’s aria **, although it is longer by about two minutes. A rousing finish. Sometimes this aria is placed before the love duet.
21: A trio for the Hunyadis ** based on a theme that will end up developing further in the love duet towards the end of the act. They are all so happy to be together again. Watch out to catch the fast paced ending.
25: Erzsebet’s second grand aria ***, this entitled “La Grange” for the soprano it was written for. It is an addition to the original score, but a great one and not recycled from earlier material. Her sons reappear (after being called away to the King by Gara) and tell her that the King has promised peace between them. Erzsebet, alone again, greets this with some lovely coloratura that hints at the main melody of the love duet again.
31: The love duet ***. She gives total confidence in Laszlo’s innocence as they embark on loverly bel canto prettiness.
38: The act finale ***, usually is performed as a separate scene but sometimes a curtain is raised to reveal the castle chapel where the peace ceremony occurs. King Laszlo vows not to take revenge on Hunyadi Laszlo for killing the Count of Celje in a grand choral scene which has an elegance unique to itself as church bell and organ finish the act.
ACT 3: (48 minutes)
Scene 1: A room in the royal palace, Buda, 1457.
0: King Laszlo has been up all night wanting to do Maria and relates this to us in a good tenor aria **. It eventually turns into an almost-waltz and has a good finish. One libretto indicates that an entire scene set in Gara’s palace could occur before this consisting of nothing but a duet for Gara and Hunyadi in which the two men fight over postponing the wedding for a month. I could not find music for this scene anywhere.
7: Gara arrives and tells the King that he can have Maria, if he can figure out how to get rid of Hunyadi, but seeing that the King vowed never to harm him in retaliation for the death of Celje, that is going to be difficult. It does eventually take up a good tune * just as the scene ends.
Scene 2: The wedding feast of Laszlo Hunyadi and Maria Gara in Buda Castle.
8, 11: A lovely wedding **, very triumphal. Matyas is excited about the arrival of the bride and groom and finally Laszlo brings Maria in for a gorgeous bel canto wedding cabaletta ** as she trills about with a flute.
15: A two movement ballet: Csardas (easily recognizable **) and Palotas * (which contains traces of Mint a tenger).
19: Hunyadi and Maria sing a loverly duet **, just before Gara arrives and arrests Laszlo in the name of the King.
Scene 3: Laszlo’s prison cell.
20, 25: There is a five minute long intermezzo * based on melodies from earlier in the score and although it is ever tuneful and very well orchestrated (oh and I did I mention the tunes are great?!?), it does kill the tragic dramatic mood of the end of the previous scene and the aria that follows from Laszlo by being so up beat, unless you are watching the Budapest production in which case you just go immediately into Laszlo’s prison aria which raises the temperature back to the act two levels ***.
31, 33: Maria breaks into the cell (having bribed the guards) and tries to get Laszlo to flee with her to Timisvar, but her father walks in just at that moment and confronts them. Maria’s begs *** her father to save the man she loves but his heart is stone even to her (the lovers duet to a theme from the overture *** as they declare that they will be united in death if they can not be in this life). The lovers are parted and Maria is dragged out by her father.
Scene 4: Part of St. George’s Square, Buda, the execution block visible.
35: Marcia Funebre **.
38: Erzsebet, who we haven’t really seen since act two, awaits for her son? Where is he? She wants to fly away with him and save him from death. Her thoughts turn into a whirlwind ** (which is depicted very effectively by the orchestra).
41: Erzsebet’s prayer to the Almighty and the finale moments of the execution ***. She begs for her son’s life. How an G-d allow deceit to triumph over goodness? Laszlo is brought out, she tries to fly to the King to stop the execution. He declares his innocence from the block, Erzsebet goes through her nightmare again as the axe falls once, twice, a third time, each time missing (a sign of divine knowledge of his innocence). He once more calls that he be released, the crowd agrees, but Gara demands a fourth strike and Laszlo is killed, Erzsebet screams and collapses. Just as an historical footnote, Erzsebet and her brother staged a rebellion agains King Laszlo von Hapsburg as a result of her son’s execution and the following January her younger son Matyas was given the crown just a month shy of fifteen, although the King had died in Vienna the previous November. Matyas would rule until his death in 1490. Erzsebet herself died in 1483.
Hunyadi Laszlo is an obscure little miracle that has been for almost 175 years at best a footnote in operatic history. The score is gorgeous, the plot is at least coherent, and the characters (apart from the two villains Celje and Gara who for some reason get to be on stage during the only not so great moments and seem just a little too similar what with their hell bent goal of destroying Hunyadi which makes Gara seem like deja vu or a reincarnation of Celje in the second act) are wonderfully well articulated. The libretto does have some awkward references to blood (especially when Maria declares during her wedding that her veins are pulsating!), and there are also some rather interesting racist references. Although Celje (a German count of a now Slovenian city) curses Hunyadi as a “Magyar” or Hungarian, Gara makes multiple references to Laszlo as being of Romanian (specifically Wallachian) origin (at least paternally, as Erzsebet was a member of the royal Szilagyi family which is why Matyas inherited the throne from the Hapsburgs). Like I said, the only problem with this opera is with deciding what gets performed and what doesn’t because of all of the optional choices that can be made (what to leave in and what to leave out). This could potentially be chaotic were the opera to be performed outside of Hungary because although some of the numbers are not dramatically optional, it would be very easy for a conductor to create their own version of this opera. I think it is an A+.