While it creaks along at times, director Csaba Kael’s new film version of a Hungarian opera masterpiece, Ferenc Erkel’s “Bank Ban,” is ultimately an invaluable entry in the opera-on-film library. Lensed by ace d.p. Vilmos Zsigmond in actual locales and on only one studio set, pic about 13th century Hungarian court intrigues is conspicuously cinematic, unlike many opera performances filmed or taped on stage. It’s comparable to some of Werner Schroeter’s operatic explorations, albeit far more conservatively conceived. A fine lead cast of voices underlines its worth for buffs, who will have their first chance to view it in Nov. 15 world premiere in L.A., with Budapest and other Hungarian screenings to follow. Ancillary interest in niche market should be strong.
Although this marks the third filming of Erkel’s frankly patriotic tragedy (including a silent Magyar version by Michael Curtiz), the opera itself remains rarely performed on the global circuit. Real value of Kael’s version is its ability to record a fine reading of the work.
“Bank Ban’s” Hungarian libretto by Beni Egressy (adapted by scripter Gabor Meszoly), set in the boisterous court of Endre the Second, is in a lingo that fits comfortably with operatic sung form.
While Endre (Kolos Kovats) is away, the naughty will play, especially Otto (Denes Gulyas), Endre’s brother and part of the power structure of the Meranians who have long dominated the Magyars in their own land. Otto plots to seduce Melinda (Andrea Rost), wife of Endre’s loyal Hungarian viceroy, Bank Ban (Atilla Kiss B.).
While Bank’s fiery brother Petur (Sandor Solymon-Nagy) tries to stir up Magyar resistance, Bank — chafing from his people’s plight yet still loyal to Endre — initially refuses to join Petur’s rebellion.
However, an errant knight and general peeping Tom named Biberach (Attila Reti) alerts Bank to Otto’s sexual plans, and this turns the viceroy to Petur’s side. Soon, the Magyars present Queen Gertrud (Eva Marton) with a challenge that “the people are gathering arms.”
In a series of intensely felt and sung duos among Kiss B.’s Bank, Dulyas’ Otto, Rost’s Melinda and Marton’s Gertrud that consume much of the second and third acts, private emotions stand in for larger, grander principles, bringing to mind the personal shadings of Shakespeare’s history plays as well as the extreme behavior displayed in other mid-19th century Romantic works. Bank finally realizes, in a burst of patriotic fury, that Magyars must defend their name, and the suggestion of Otto’s rape of Melinda concludes the opera in a string of rising emotional confrontations.
Tenor Kiss B., who smoothly balances the role’s bold gruffness and a commitment to core personal values, dominates throughout. Rost proves to be a powerful soprano of shattering range. The queen’s rigidity is made particularly solid by the compact force of mezzo-soprano Marton, while tenor Gulyas and baritones Solymon-Nagy and Reti add considerable color in vivid supporting roles.
Blatantly uneven pre-recording of voices mars all perfs. The artificial effect unfortunately distances auds from the work’s emotional strengths, further compounded by Kael’s direction, which is far better in the lengthy duo scenes than in the hackneyed group passages.
Coverage of many Hungarian architectural locations is outstanding. Zsigmond’s surprising decision to use lots of filters in his lensing produces a muted, deflating effect, however, that works against the opera’s emotional heat. Conductor Tamas Pal leads an energetic, enthralling Hungarian Orchestra of the Millennium.