Offenbach I: How to Decode

Bizánc at Újszínház

Rhein Fairies at the Erkel


In this contemporary theatre scene, one must sometimes be a detective to figure out what a director wishes to “say” with a given production. Take the Új Színház’s new premiere of Bizánc (Ferenc Herczeg’s classic play Byzantium from 1904, which dramatizes the Fall of Constantinople, conquered on May 29, 1453, by Sultan Mehmed and his Ottoman army). Director Viktor Nagy claims in the program’s notes that “we are facing such a dangerous situation again today.”

Although it is tempting to argue that, despite a refugee crisis, today’s situation can hardly be construed as a potentially crushing blow to Christendom, let us look at Mr. Nagy’s directorial choices. How does he intend to develop and communicate his message? Well, the costumes are mostly modern. The lady-in-waiting Zenobia (Csenge Orosz) is made-over into a highly-paid organizer and logistics specialist, and the play begins with György Vass (as Spiridion, the lord chamberlain) listening to Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” on his earphones. Now, I imagine this music was chosen either because it is loud, or because it is the European Union’s anthem. Still, it is hardly a Christian song. The lyrics, practically lifted from a poem by Schiller, are Romantic and pagan in spirit.

Perhaps the producers wish to say that the EU is leaving countries like Hungary unprotected against a large-scale Muslim invasion, but if Constantinople stands for modern Hungary, then the play contains some dark reflections on the present state of the country. For example, the media, as it is portrayed here, is filled with flattering news about the empire. Consequently, the ruling emperor (Constantine XI, played by Ottó Viczián) has his head up his ass and is unaware how close and certain defeat actually is. His inner circle is filed with incompetent and self-serving parasites who feel absolutely no allegiance to him. In the second act, he realizes just how little power he has while all of his so-called allies desert him. (This part is reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Richard II.) Then, after he rushes out in a suicidal attempt to defend his city, the remaining leaders scramble desperately to preserve their power and save their own skins. Hence, the third act plays like dark comedy or satire.

What moral emerges? It is hard to view Constantine as a hero. He is too full of pride to negotiate with the invaders and essentially provokes a massacre of his subjects. When his wife Iréne (embodied by the alluring Bernadett Gregor) abandons him in the hopes of marrying the new sultan, he is aided by Herma (Wanda Nemes). She is the play’s model of femininity, a self-abnegating servant who commits suicide over her leader’s body. In lieu of a protagonist, the most honorable character is Giovanni, the Genoese mercenary (played by Tibor Szakacs). He voices the moral of the play, that Constantinople was destined to fall, because its leaders had no interest in serving their country; the people no longer respected their rulers or the Church, so they deserved to be massacred by the infidels. Is this meant to be a cautionary tale? If so, the outlook is bleak indeed. 

A typical specimen of its genre, Bizánc is filled with long poetic speeches. While the actors, for the most part, deliver them with the appropriate passion, they fall short of resurrecting the epic, romantic style. Perhaps our modern sensibilities instinctively reject the old-fashioned heroic models. Regardless of the directorial message, Heczeg’s drama is not terribly compelling. The best reason to see it would be out of academic interest.


Rhein Fairies at the Erkel

Hungarian theatre has a strong tradition of covert symbolism. Under Communism, particularly in the Kádár Era, audiences were quite adept at perceiving hidden and subversive messages. Hence, a night at the theater could be an act of defiance against the imposed order. (An elaboration of this theme with specific examples can be found in the book Socialist Shakespeare Productions in Kádár-Regime Hungary by Veronika Schandl.) In this spirit, the EU is evoked again in the premiere of Offenbach’s opera Die Rheinnixen (sometimes translated as The Rhein Fairies), directed by Ferenc Anger. 

Here, we begin with the spectacle of hunky workers in green overalls (Mr. Anger, you are speaking my language!) wielding palettes and leisurely applying fine touches to a bridge that is under construction. Suddenly, an official appears and claps his hands, prompting the men to work sloppily and hastily. By the time of the grand opening, the bridge is still dangerously incomplete. This phenomenon is patently familiar in Hungary. Why, it could be a parable for public works in general!

At this point, however, when the local official Hedwig (in the original, a land-owner celebrating the harvest festival) steps forward for the ribbon-cutting, she is wearing a blue pantsuit, clearly a reference to Angela Merkel. The merry-making is interrupted by rampaging mercenaries, armed with sling shots (!), who plan to drink their fill of free beer and have their way with the women. As the chorus of soldiers sing about how they live well from pillaging the land, the fluffy clouds that frame the stage turn red. At this point, one is forced to make some serious attempts at interpretation.

Starting with the work itself, it was Offenbach’s first grand opera. Its premiere was in 1864, but the piece is set in 1522. At that time – and, indeed, for much of its history – Germany as we know it was a collection of independent states. The opera reflects on this historic legacy, where the citizens could prosper through hard work and industry, but were subject to unpredictable attacks by bands of marauding soldiers. As the opera program convincingly argues, Offenbach was championing German unification.

So what is Angela Merkel doing onstage? She is the first East German to rule over the newly re-unified Germany, but I doubt this was the producers’ point. Is it due to that overwhelming desire to update everything in an attempt to make it topical? Is the ribbon-cutting an allusion to János Arany’s ballad Hídavatás (Bridge Christening), which ends in a mass suicide? And when the clouds turned red, was that a reference to the Soviet troops stationed in Hungary? While it is not unheard of for modern opera productions to operate in multiple settings and times (see Balázs Koválik’s production of Fidelio from 2008), nothing else in the staging indicated this, so I was forced to abandon my theory of a Communist-regime parallel. My Hungarian opera companion suggested an alternate interpretation: that Angela Merkel was leaving Europe vulnerable to attacks by rapacious illegal immigrants. Do you see what I mean about the local talent for decoding symbolism?

Setting aside all attempts at interpretation, let us focus on the opera. The music is quite appealing, but the first half gets off to a rocky start. Like Verdi’s Sicilian Vespers from 1855, it calls for the staging (or suggestion) of a mass rape, which is always a delicate matter. Also, it is hard to sympathize with the heroine’s love interest Franz (sung by tenor Gergely Boncsér). Due to a head injury, he fails to recognize his fiancée Armgard (Bori Keszei), allows her to be molested by soldiers, belatedly recognizes her after she falls into a death-like swoon, and then marches off with his fellow mercenaries for more fighting and plundering.

In the second act, the fairies of the title appear. They are the souls of departed, heart-broken maidens who mislead night-time wanderers in the forest, often to premature death. In this case, they are dressed in white sheets with glowing red ring collars (provide your own interpretation) and attempt to lure people off the end of that unfinished bridge. This is based upon the same folk-tale material that Puccini would use in his first opera, the one-act Le Villi, in 1884; though, to be honest, the motif was already popular, following the wildly successful premiere of the ballet Giselle in 1841. At this point, the story heats up with revenge plots, revealed identities, reunited lovers, and bloodthirsty soldiers lured astray by fairies waving white wooden oars. Hurrah! This is what grand opera is all about!

The music is very effective, and if it seems predictable at times (the love duet), there are also strangely haunting passages, which Bori Keszei sang quite beautifully. Not all the singers are so successful, but the bass Géza Gábor and baritone Csaba Szegedi made the most of their roles as Gottfried, the hunter, and Conrad, the mercenary captain, respectively. The finale, when the patriotic chorus and the fairies’ ethereal tune are combined, is effective and stirring.

In conclusion, suffer through the first half, savor the second, and try not to get bogged down or distracted by attempting to understand the director’s message.


Note: On the night I viewed Die Rheinnixen, there was a brief orchestral number before the show in observation of February 25th, the day to remember victims of the Communist Regime. There was no mention of this on the program, just a tiny note on the monitor in the lobby. No one announced the title of the lovely music. (It was "Stabat Mater" by Ernő Dohnányi.) A large screen covered the stage, but then the video portion failed to work. At one point, technicians tried to switch on the stage lights, in order to cancel out the projection, but then the set became visible. In my experience, this is typical of these surprise programs at the Erkel. They are barely announced, poorly planned, badly executed, and the audience receives no information, anyway. This is one area for potential improvement. 

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