A weekend of Wagner and washing machines

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The Flying Dutchman is based on the myth of a legendary ghost ship, doomed to sail the seas for all eternity. Which seemed at odds with what we were watching on the stage of the premiere of the latest production at Müpa Budapest. A character in a boardroom scene was unbuckling his belt and seemed be to be about to rape a presumably trafficked teenage girl. Then the set rotated around and the two disappeared while the main characters took centre stage. It was obviously designed to shock – and shock us it did.

But I’m assuming this is precisely the effect its maverick director Balázs Kovalik – wants to bring about. I learned that Wagner’s opera is a satire on the materialistic greed of the society he lived in (as evident by the story’s many mercenary and narcissistic characters), so the staging and characterisation is meant to reflect that. We were informed Hungarian audiences are more conservative when compared other parts of Europe so this is set to be a real polarising production. I’m all for experimental and provocative staging, but I couldn’t help but think this could have been executed in some other way other than briefly depicting the rape of a minor in a way that seemed borderline gratuitous.

Müpa night (c) Müpa Budapest, János Posztós

Müpa night (c) Müpa Budapest, János Posztós

Nevertheless, I remained transfixed for the rest of the show, in spite of this disturbing first act. The action takes place on the aforementioned rotating stage, with the skeleton of a ship depicted in wood that the characters revolve around and climb upon. The haunting and mesmerising performances led by Peter Rose, Elisabet Strid and James Rutherford are even more impressive due to the lack of interval (as the composer originally intended). There was an extra round of applause for the spurned lover Erik, played by Zoltán Nyári – whose agony-infused performance almost stole the show despite having a relatively minor role.

And then there are the other “stars” of the show – the production’s famous washing machines. These accompany the female chorus in the second act, to spellbinding effect. The machines cheerfully spin away, as the ladies sing an aria – also about ‘spinning’ (which originally referred to spinning wheels). This together with the music performed by the Hungarian Radio Symphonic Orchestra and conducted by Ádám Fischer – made for a colourful and intriguing evening’s entertainment that my fellow opera-savvy journalist and a newcomer like myself both thoroughly enjoyed.

Müpa outside p&p 50820140 (c) Müpa Budapest - Budapest, Zsuzsa Pető

Müpa outside p&p 50820140 (c) Müpa Budapest – Budapest, Zsuzsa Pető

Celebrating its 10th anniversary, Müpa Budapest (previously known as The Palace of Arts) is a sprawling modern structure that boasts a similar atmosphere to The Barbican in London, with several performance spaces and art gallery, not to mention spectacular views of the romantic Danube River. Performances range from ballet, world music, contemporary circus, jazz and of course opera. And every year, Müpa hosts its much-anticipated Wagner festival, which includes a full performance of The Ring Cycle as well as The Flying Dutchman. It’s also one of the slightly more affordable opera venues in Europe, we were told by Deputy CEO Gábor Kosztolánczy.

Affordable it may be, but audiences aren’t getting a cut-price experience. The vast Béla Bartók National Concert Hall (where our performance of Wagner takes place) boasts some of the largest organ pipes in the world, while the acoustics are fine tuned by the special adjustable panels in the walls.

But it’s not just the opera that draws the crowds. On the first night we were treated to slice of Hungarian culture with a performance of Night Circus by the Hungarian Recirquel troupe – a more whimsical and mellow outing compared to the aforementioned disturbing performance we would witness the following night. With stunning set design, astonishing feats of acrobatics and a live pianist on the stage performing staggering beautiful (and self-penned) compositions, it was a delightful evening’s entertainment, made evident by the many enthusiastic little ones in the audience.

Müpa sunny (c) Müpa Budapest, Gábor Kotschy

Müpa sunny (c) Müpa Budapest, Gábor Kotschy

Hungary equals the likes of Russia and China in producing world-class acrobats (many of which emigrate to perform in Vegas and Canada). Speaking with the show’s director Bence Vági – himself a trained dancer who studied in Liverpool – he noted that Hungarian performers are subjected to much stricter, almost Spartan-like training than their counterparts in other countries, hence why the standards are far higher and the performances more polished than anywhere else.

The city of Budapest itself is a charming place to spend a weekend, with a plethora of Gothic and Baroque architecture to admire. The St. Stephen’s Basilica and The Gothic Parliament Building (itself possessing the majestic grandeur of a cathedral) are both must-sees, together with the iconic Chain Bridge and the powerful Holocaust memorial consisting of many pairs of shoes crafted out of cast iron – depicting those left behind by the victims who were shot on the banks of the Danube.

Despite its tragic history, Budapest still has a thriving Jewish quarter boasting many of the city’s popular night spots and watering holes. Our evenings were spent exploring them, as well as the many “ruin bars” (Shoreditch-style establishments converted out of the city’s abandoned houses). And to soothe our sore heads the next day, we took a dip in the famous Szechenyi Baths – which are nearly 100 years old and the biggest natural hot spring spa baths in Europe.

But among all the must-see attractions and historical monuments Budapest has to offer, it’s definitely worth spending an evening at Müpa for a night at the opera – my visit has definitely made me a Wagner convert.

Müpa night 3 (c) Müpa Budapest - Budapest, Zsuzsa Pető

Müpa night 3 (c) Müpa Budapest – Budapest, Zsuzsa Pető

by Viola Levy

Müpa Budapest Budapest, Komor Marcell u. 1, 1095 Hungary +36 1 555 3000

Details for Mupa’s upcoming festival are below:
Bridging Europe Festival: 2015 Austria  September 11–16, 2015

A joint production by the Budapest Festival Orchestra and the Müpa Budapest, the Bridging Europe festival brings a special flavour to the opening of each season. This year’s edition of Bridging Europe serves up the cultural delights of Austria. The quality of the classical music programme is guaranteed by Iván Fischer, but literature, film, dance, popular music and jazz programmes will also find plenty of interest.

Full programme, tickets please visit here