Erkel Ferenc: Istvan kiraly (1885)

Grand Opera in four acts. Running Time: 2 hours 22 minutes.


Stand by for another of my 500-word introductions to an Erkel opera.

This is Erkel’s sort of Parsifal. Slowly with each opera that he produced he moved away from an Hungarian mimic of Italian and French (also Weberian) forms in his first three operas into something more Wagnerian in his next two operas, to more “eastern” (Serbian and Turkish influences in Brakovics Gyorgy) back to Hungarian operetta, then into more purely dramatic Hungarian-based music. Given that these eight operas were written over a period of forty-five years, chances would be high that the first sound nothing like the last. Here we have a medieval setting with a clash of the Christian and Pagan worlds and a concentration on words centred around a king projected as a saintly figure (hence the Parsifal reference). Somehow Naxos Records of all recording companies produced an unedited recording of the original score which was released in 2014. It does not contain the apparently large amount of music that was added after the first performance (such as the extended ballet) but it does represent Erkel’s original intentions and the opera as it premiered in Budapest in 1885. This is unique because this opera has gone through many different editions by various hands (like all of Erkel’s scores), in this case by Erkel’s two surviving sons who for some reason added 14 numbers to the score. In the 1930s it was cut down by half its original length for no good reason and given multiple times in this mutilated form although the Communist government put a stop to all performances of it from 1945 until 1990 because of its strongly theistic overtones (the narrative hinges on a rivalry between Christian and Pagan elements in early 11th century Hungary). When the original score was painstakingly reconstructed for a performance in honour of Erkel’s 200th birthday in 2010, the cast had to learn their parts from late-19th century vocal scores because of the massive revisions, cuts, interpolations, and all around screwing up that had occurred. Unlike Erkel’s earlier Dozsa Gyorgy which can be manipulated without violating too much of its plot (because it has so little of one), the libretto of Istvan kiraly has been completely rewritten at least three times. It is probably Erkel’s most abused score, which is saying something given that all of his operas have suffered from such manipulation as to be unparalleled in operatic history. Other composers have their work ignored, Erkel is one of the few whose works have been deliberately mutilated often beyond recognition or his personal intentions, and ironically most of the damage was done by either his own children or by the management of the only theatre on the planet that regularly performs any of his operas, the Budapest Opera.

Unlike all of Erkel’s other tragic operas (Batori Maria, Hunyadi Laszlo, Bank Ban, Duzsa Gyorgy, Brankovics Gyorgy) King Stephen does not die as a result of wicked courtiers nor destroyed because of some sort of character flaw. In fact he doesn’t really even die (at least not in the opera). Instead, the finale consists of a Libuse-style four-part prophetic vision of Hungarian medieval and early modern history followed by Stephen’s apotheosis. Stephen’s son Emeric does die (as he historically did via a wild boar during a hunt) although in the opera he is murdered by the courtier Sebõs (pronounced ShEH-boosh) along with his cousin Vazul who historical tried to assassinate Stephen, but that doesn’t factor at all in the opera).

This review contains my version of the synopsis that accompanies the Naxos recording so I will not provide a “Setting” section. But let me say that the plot of this thing is really weird.



ACT 1: Great Hall of the Royal Palace. (29 minutes)

0: Ég, áldd meg a királyt! There is no prelude, instead we are almost immediately in a sessional of the Diet of Hungary headed by King Stephen **. Stephen wants to solidify dynastic rule in Hungary by marrying his son Emeric to Crescimira, the daughter of the King of Croatia. (NOTE: Actually her name was Patricia, but her father was King Kresimir of Croatia which might be where this name comes from). Emeric bows to his father’s wishes and Stephen sends his cousin Peter Orseolo to fetch the princess.

10, 13: A szárnyas hír/Halld tehát Emeric is terrified and tells his tutor the Bishop Gellert so. Queen Gizella, his mother, arrives with her ladies expressing her joy over the wedding announcement in a funny sounding chorus *. Emeric reveals the reason for his sadness to his mother and Gellert: he had made a vow to the Virgin Mary to be her betrothed and thus has sworn eternal chastity **. Gellert tells him to fulfill his father’s wish that he marry, but keep his vow of chastity (this will be hard for reasons I don’t think I need to get into).

18: Ki tette ezt? Now things get weird. Emeric’s squire Sebos arrives to congratulate his master on the wedding when Gizella’s lady-in-waiting Jova arrives declaring to the Queen that her daughter Zolna has been abducted. She recognizes Sebos as her daughter’s kidnapper * and also reveals that he is a pagan idol worshiper. Emeric then banishes Sebos from the court until he returns the girl to her mother and converts to Christianity. Sebos is then dragged off by the guards, swearing vengeance as the court reassembles to celebrate (this doesn’t pack the punch one would expect).

24: Hozza Isten szép arádat The court returns and rejoices in the up coming wedding **, all except Emeric.

ACT 2: The shore of the Danube, a church near by, just before dawn. (36 minutes)

0, 1: Hullámzó folyam A beautiful prelude *** opens the act and goes chromatic before Sebos’ aria ** as he curses his fate at losing both his honour and his beloved Zolna.

4: Leányod, e drága alak Zolna arrives with her mother Jova and clear up one very important plot point: Zolna was not kidnapped by Sebos, she is actually his lover ***. It is true that she fled with him, which was misinterpreted by Jova as an unwilling abduction, although technically he did steal her daughter even if it was with Zolna’s consent. Jova isn’t thrilled but is willing to consent to Sebos marrying her daughter if he converts to Christianity. Zolna pleads with Sebos to convert, but he refuses. Church bells ring for dawn mass.

9: Árpád vagy te is Sebos decides that a better usage of his time would be to extract revenge on the royal family by enticing their one pagan relative, Vazul, to take the throne  from Stephen. This is a surprisingly powerful duet ***.

14, 17, 21: Megértse mindenki szavunkat/Ég, áldd meg a királyt! The Wedding Procession, is just remarkably powerful ***. A Herald announces that everyone within hearing distance is invited by the King to the wedding of his son to Crescimira. There is a beautiful baritone led choral wedding song ***. Crescimira and Peter arrive by boat. A short ballet is performed * and the chorus finishes off grandly.

26: There is a very lovely organ processional into the church **.

31: Szíved titkát Meanwhile back to the plot, we discover that (surprise, surprise!) Peter has fallen in love with Crescimira during their trip from Croatia (does this really shock anyone? I predicted this even before I read it!). The two men join forces, Peter in order to get Crescimira for himself, Sebos in order to get one more person to help him destroy the Arpads. The wedding recessional ** is great with a wonderful harp accompaniment.

33: Drága magyar föld Crescimira’s first words are to declare her eternal faithfulness to Hungary *** ending with a spectacular chorus (SPOILERS: she hasn’t seen act three yet!).

ACT 3: The Bridal Chamber (31 minutes).

0, 2: Most elhagyunk/Álmodtam egy édes A nice bridal chorus, not up to the Lohengrin one (which it is clearly modelled off of) but good *. Emeric is left alone with Crescimira who declares that she loves him in a gentle aria **.

6: Hisz rajtunk már Emeric tells her that he cannot love her, but says nothing of his vow, and leaves, making her think something is wrong with her, or both of them *.

13: Óh, bosszúálló égnek Istene! Crescimira is left alone, and is starting to become mentally imbalanced **. She wants revenge. Zolna sees her in despair and ushers Peter into the chamber. Zolna then leaves with Sebos.

18: Boszúdnak angyala. The Crescimira-Peter duet is an ornery affair *. He tells her to murder Emeric, giving her a vial of poison. Eventually they are interrupted by a great commotion outside and Crescimira rushes out. Sebos returns through a trap door and reveals that he has just informed the King that Vazul is leading an uprising of the Pagans.

26, 28: Imazsámolyára dőlten/Szerelme az volt Crescimira returns and Peter asks why she is acting so strangely. She describes how she has just poisoned and killed Emeric *. Peter, rather shockingly, then laughs at her and reveals that he knew about Emeric’s vow of chastity to the Virgin Mary, Sebos had told him **. Crescimira goes insane, and armed men storm the palace.

ACT 4: (48 minutes)

Scene 1: A Pagan Temple.

1, 5: Én előtte szívem Istenéhez/Ah, csalfa viszhang Zolna, alone, awaits her beloved Sebos. She has abandoned her mother and Christianity for the sake of her lover and embarks on a beautiful aria as she anticipates his arrival ***. The second section is just as lovely *** if a little Wagner/bel canto-ish?

7: A hajnal érkezik Meanwhile, Vazul has come * with the Shaman Barang to perform a human sacrifice for the god of War (who remains nameless). Guess who is to be sacrificed? Zolna of course! No actually that would make sense, unlike what actually happens. (Sebos never shows up for some reason that is never explained and Zolna just leaves the scene).

11, 17: Hazudsz!/Bocsánat mindenkinek No actually Stephen arrives and stops the sacrifice by touching the fire with a Crucifix. I am not kidding! And it goes out. Musically it is rather climatic ** as the two sides (Christian and Pagan) are about to shed blood but are stopped by Stephen. The Pagans convert and are given full pardon by Stephen as a result of the fire going out and they all sing a hymn to the Cross ***.

Scene 2: A room in the palace.

20: Ó hozza vissza The scene starts with a lush introduction from the orchestra and a noble prayer from Queen Gizella * which is interrupted by the return of King Stephen who triumphs over his peaceful resolution to the uprising and reunification of the country under Christianity. But Jova arrives with news of Emeric’s death.

23: Csak daloljatok, csak daloljatok! Crescimira’s chance for a mad scene **. She is really crazy now, like Ophelia level and beyond, and thinks she is seeing a vision of Emeric.

29, 35: Oh Uram!Oh irgalomnak atyja Isten! Stephen is having a succession crisis and is about to appoint his nephew Vazul as heir when news arrives that he has just been killed by Peter’s henchmen in an attempt to stop the peace between Stephen and the Pagans *. Stephen then orders out all except the princes Endre, Bela, and Levente who are his last three possible heirs and tells them to leave the country until the murderers can be punished because he can do nothing to protect them now. He then prays to G-d ***.

37: Oh, ölj meg engem Uram,Sebos enters via another secret passage with the intent of killing Stephen, but seeing him praying for his enemies causes Sebos to fall to his knees and beg the King to kill him **. Stephen refuses to kill him, but he does banish him from Hungary forever.

40, 42: Oh Isten, kezedben a világ/Óh, áldassék a Te neved Stephen asks G-d for visions of the future for Hungary (why this doesn’t border on witchcraft I’m not sure but whatever) in a beautiful aria ***. Four visions, the fall of Peter, the issuing of the Golden Bull (the second European constitution by King Endre II in 1222 ***, King Matthias, and finally Maria Teresa asking the support of the Hungarian nobles at the Diet of Pressburg in 1741 during the War of the Austrian Succession.

45: Uram, bocsásd el hű szolgádat The Apotheosis of Saint King Stephen I of Hungary ***.


This recording has problems. The male chorus and the female soloists are constantly off-pitch.  The male soloists, the female chorus, and the orchestra are all great. The plot of this opera is just strange and uses far too many stock concepts (unwanted marriages, historical vows of chastity leading to uxoricide or in this case mariticide, Christians and Pagans in love with each other, an abduction that wasn’t really an abduction, men falling in love with women they meet while preparing them for marriage to another man, giving said woman poison to kill her husband, pagan revolts against Christian rulers spurred on by men who have bad love lives, pagan sacrifices, Christian symbols foiling pagan worship, soprano mad scenes after they kill their husbands, the apotheosis of a saintly ruler following a series of prophecies about the future of one country or another) it all has been done before! I am actually surprised that Zolna was not at least almost sacrificed in the pagan temple, the libretto is just so cliched. Another problem is that there are too many plot lines, too many characters, and two saintly male Arpads which is one too many. Emeric’s vow to the Virgin Mary is historical fact, so I will not fault it as a plot device, but by playing up his holiness so early (and for him to be basically martyred by his wife) detracts from Stephen’s saintliness, which doesn’t really factor in the opera until the fourth act. It gets to the point that one wonders why the opera isn’t “Prince Emeric” rather than “King Stephen”, although, is there very much of Emeric in the opera after the first act? On the same side of the coin there is little of Stephen until the fourth act apart from the first ten minutes and some lines before the wedding. Musically the opera is about as mixed as Bank Ban, the second and fourth acts are stunningly beautiful, but the third and especially the first can be a little boring at times. Overall, however, I actually did enjoy this opera, and it was a good swan song for Erkel. A-.

And does anyone else pick up on the irony of a Croatian princess murdering the heir to the Hungarian throne, on their wedding night?


Naxos Release article:

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