Erkel Ferenc: Sarolta (1862)

Comic Opera in three acts. Running Time: 2 hours 15 minutes.

800px-Saroltaősbemutató

This was Erkel’s first fiasco, being performed only ten times by 1901 and in the previous decade it had a single performance, although recently it has been making a tiny revival of sorts in Hungarian theatres in Romania and Hungary. The decision to write a comedy must have been Erkel’s. Following Bank Ban he probably wanted a break from writing historical tragedies. That is not to say that Sarolta is devoid of history, or at least of an historical character: King Geza II is the tenor role in this opera. Incidentally, the title character’s name would be Charlotte in English or French. The reason given for why the opera failed is the poor libretto but I wouldn’t be surprised if the vocal distribution played a role. There are only six soloists, three baritones, along with a single bass, tenor, and soprano.

Incidentally the libretto is available (in Hungarian only) at the United States Library of Congress Archives website.

SETTING: An Hungarian village in Moson County (North-Western Hungary south of modern day Bratislava, Slovakia) in the mid-12th century. Sarolta (soprano) is the daughter of the town singer Ordito (baritone). She is in love with the knight Gyula (baritone) but King Geza II (tenor) changes clothes with him in an attempt by the King who wants Sarolta for himself (yes, it is one of those operas!). She doesn’t bite. Meanwhile the Baron Belus (bass) will do anything to keep the King away from Sarolta for some reason that is never fully explained. When the deception is revealed and Ordito realizes that the King himself has been Sarolta’s suitor he thinks that his daughter would make an awesome queen! The King decides that he will marry Sarolta under the name of Gyula. Belus arrives with the King’s order that Sarolta marry Gyula and has her marry the real Gyula. Ordito only realizes the King isn’t his son-in-law now when the King returns victorious from a battle against his illegitimate son (who we don’t see) who tried to stage a coup, banishes Gyula from court and makes him commander of Moson Fortress.

LINK:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Of6HgJQYG8

LOOK OUT FOR:

ACT 1: A village hall in Moson County, Hungary, 1146. (54 minutes)

0: The prelude * is amusing and meanders about almost aimlessly with a touch of carnival whimsy.

4: Suddenly we are bombarded by Wagnerian Rhein Music and an opening chorus as villagers take their places to hear/sing along a performance **.

7, 11, 20: The village signer Ordito sings a verse song with the chorus **. It is mild, but catchy with chimes constantly ringing. Eventually the church bells ring and a shepherd’s flute causes the people (who apparently have ADHD or are lemmings working for the Pied Piper) to leave Ordito in the hall *. Sarolta herself arrives on the scene and father and daughter set up the plot: Ordito wants his daughter married and have a grandson to replace him as town singer (although given how fickle these villagers are…). Sarolta declares that she has already chosen a husband, the knight Gyula who arrives just at that moment and she and her father hide so they can hear his song. The clarinet ends up doing some interesting work *.

21: Gyula’s love song *** as he plays a cimbalom.

26: Sarolta comes out of hiding and tells Gyula that she loves him and wants him to ask her father if they can marry **. Father agrees and they are all joyful.

31, 33, 34: The King arrives to fanfare * and meets with Gyula, notice the play on the proto- “sleep motif” *. His aria, in which he admits to being in love with Sarolta himself, is weird  *.

36: The King’s serenade to Sarolta ** is a bit better but Sarolta isn’t interested and Ordito disparages the disguised King.

43, 52: The act ends with a choral-dance number ** as the villagers return which turns into a coloratura soprano aria for Sarolta, which turns into a trio con coro, and then more Hungarian dances and chorus once more **.

ACT 2: (47 minutes)

Scene 1: A country scene.

1: A furious chorus brings on Baron Belus ** who informs us that the King’s illegitimate son Boris is trying to take the throne. A furious number.

6, 10: Sarolta’s aria ** (themes from the overture return here *) is full of coloratura fireworks and then ending is clearly similar to Melinda’s suicide aria in Bank Ban. 

15, 16: A very beautiful dark passage ** from the orchestra accompanies the arrival of the King, still disguised as Gyula ***.

18: The two men reveal the deception to Sarolta and Ordito **.

24: The King reveals that he is the King **. Although she is surprised, she wants to remain faithful to Gyula.

27: Ordito wants Sarolta to reconsider the King’s proposal of marriage **. He wants her to be Queen (but wouldn’t that ruin the possibility of having a grandson be village singer?).

30: An aria for Ordito as he tries to pressure Sarolta *.

Scene 2: King Geza’s war headquarters.

34: This scene serves little purpose other than to rely the one non-romantic situation occurring in the opera (this war thing) *. The men, other than Ordito, gather to plan the attack. We meet the meaningless characters of Fupap (the third baritone) and Uros (who has one line that he shares with Belus). The chorus gets in on it too.

40, 46: Gyula’s aria con coro **, turning into march which the chorus finally ends **.

ACT 3: Same as Act 2 Scene 1. (34.5 minutes).

0: A men’s chorus *.

2: A Military March ***.

6: An aria for Geza ***, he wants to marry Sarolta under Gyula’s name and arranges it with Belus who decides to arrange for a ever so slight but important change to Geza’s plan.

16: Sarolta and Ordito come on and are told by Belus that Sarolta will marry “Gyula” and have a charming little duettino **. This turns into a sextette with some nobles how have come as witnesses for the wedding *.

19: An interesting figure in the violins comes out here which is rather beguiling ** as the wedding takes place.

20, 23: Ordito is exited about his daughter becoming the secret queen consort (if he only knew) **. Erkel has a field day playing the bells amusingly as well as the ensemble for the five principles that follows which reminds me of Ode to Joy but I could just be crazy.

25: Another choral sequence, this time with a Gluck-like fury **.

27, 29: A reference to a march tune from Hunyadi Laszlo *. The real King returns in the finale ** from victorious battle and Ordito realizes that Sarolta has married the real Gyula. Geza is furious that Gyula is Sarolta’s husband and banishes him from Buda but makes him Commander of the local fortress.

32: The final rondo *** as Sarolta gets the man she wants and everyone (including her) praises the King for making it all possible, sort of.

COMMENTS:

This is a charming comic opera, and it is actually a bit of a shame both that it has had only around 20 performances ever and that I had never heard it before now. The libretto might be stupid, I don’t know as my Hungarian vocabulary consists of about thirty words, ten being numbers and the rest being nouns and basic phrases, but the story, albeit formulaic, is amusing and the score doesn’t contain a moment that I could term dull. In many ways this acts as an antidote to the three early Erkel operas, similarly to how Meistersinger is seen as an antidote to Tristan. The music is structured similarly to that of Bank Ban although there are traces both of Wagner and Hunyadi Laszlo in it including some direct quotations from the earlier Erkel work. I’m giving it an A-.

And yes, I have been binging the Erkel operas this weekend, I’ve had a total of eight hours of sleep over two nights and been eating even less but I don’t think I will be doing Dosza Gyorgy just yet (I’ve actually written up the first act, of five, already). Although it is  basically a grand opera in the Meyerbeerian style, it isn’t all that interest and it has been subjugated to so much editing (the longest performance available is 113 minutes, it was originally 3 hours!), so although I will probably finish it at some point in order to finish the Erkel collection, I’m not hurrying on it. Also, what I’ve written is rather sketchy because the only plot synopsis I have to work with is a bad translation from Hungarian.

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