After five days in Budapest, I find it hard to decide what I most associate with it. It’s different from almost any other major city I’ve visited. Part of the problem is that the city is big—Buda and Pest are each rather sprawling, so put them together, and you have a lot of city. But it’s a lot of awesome city. The architecture is varied, though in bad repair. The Jewish community is vibrant. The food is delicious and cheap. The nightlife revolves around super-hipster bars in crumbling old buildings. The flea markets are a dream come true. So I guess I’ll just give up any hope of putting this in a logical order, and instead try to talk about everything.
Beautiful buildings and views
Budapest is gorgeous, and the two halves are gorgeous in different ways. Buda is full of hills, with the white Matthias Church (with a very colorful roof) and the surrounding Fisherman’s Bastion sitting atop one of them. Pest is flat, but it has St. Stephen’s Basilica, the extraordinarily intricate Parliament building, and City Park (with a castle). Of course, both sides have lovely views of the Danube, and the famous chain bridge connects them.
Even the less photo-worthy areas are fascinating. Pest features a wide range of architectural styles, with neo-Gothic and neo-Renaissance banks and churches mixed in with Art Nouveau villas. (There are all the ugly Soviet-era buildings, too, but you can try to ignore them.) Many are in desperate need of repair, but I suppose that’s the natural consequence of your government being broke. Continue reading Budapest, city of everything→
I’m mostly in Munich this year for the Bayerische Staatsoper. And I chose it intentionally, knowing that the Staatsoper meant household-name soloists and crazy Regietheater in addition to a stellar ensemble (not to mention the playing and conducting). But sometimes it’s nice to be reminded that there’s more to opera than fame and concepts. There’s singing and there’s acting, and beyond that, very little matters. All of this is by way of saying that the Don Giovanni I saw at the Erkel Theater in Budapest on March 26th was not flashy. The talent was mostly home-grown. The sets and costumes were simple and in time period. Nothing unexpected happened (well, except for the surprise inclusion of the Zerlina/Leporello duet). And it was all wonderfully charming.
This production seems to take much of its inspiration from Tirso de Molina’s original play El burlador de Sevilla. Don Juan is sleeping his way around the 14th century (um, give or take one hundred years? I get fuzzy on costume time period identification pre-1600s). We first see him appear masked, all in black, which is not specified in Tirso’s script, but is definitely a cliche of the genre. The constraints of “period costuming” are loosened enought to give Don Giovanni and Leporello swashbuckling tri-cornered hats—a liberty I definitely approve of! The set shows some carved stone doorways that remain onstage throughout. Various items in the background (differently colored flats, a balcony, a villa, or the statue of the Commendatore) mark the opera’s different locations and serve the action well. We’re not seeing millions of dollars onstage like we might at the Met or the Bayerische Staatsoper, and that’s actually rather refreshing.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: nothing else matters much if the acting and singing are good. Here, they are. I want to start by saying something good about Cseh Antal’s dopey, well-sung Masetto, because further mentions of him are about to vanish in my rapt adoration of the utterly fabulous Szemere Zita. If I hadn’t seen it here, I wouldn’t believe it was possible to steal the show as Zerlina. But she does. She’s a competent actress, winsome with some sass and spine, but it’s her voice that really stuns. During “Batti, batti,” she took her top note higher (as a cadenza), floating it pianissimo, crescendoing to a ringing forte, and bringing it back down to the original volume and texture. All perfectly smoothly. It was a lesson in vocal control. I thought her flashier cadenza in “Vedrai, carino” was actually a tad tasteless, but my fellow operagoer disagreed. (“If you’ve got it, flaunt it,” was her sentiment, and Szemere certainly has it.) It was also really exciting to see Zerlina’s usually cut scene with Leporello. (She ties him up while threatening him; he tries to flatter his way out of the situation but fails.) Even though it does nothing to advance the plot, it’s good fun, especially with this cast! Continue reading A charming Don Giovanni in Budapest→