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Bátori Mária: the Antecedents of the text and the Historical Background of the plot

The choice of the librettist Benjámin Egressy (1814–1851) fell on the subject of Bátori Mária, taken from a stage play in prose by András Dugonics (1793; first performed in 1794, published in 1795). The play had been popular on the Hungarian stage for nearly half a century.11 The Hungarian Theatre in Pest put it on bill in March 1838, soon after Erkel had joined the company.12

The plot of Bátori Mária is based upon the tragic story of Ines de Castro, a theme that had been wandering all over Europe for centuries. It was first adapted by Camoës in Os Lusiadas (1572)13 and later it reappeared in dramatic form on the stages of several nations. One of them, Weidmann’s five act tragedy Pedro und Ines is listed in the library inventories of some of the theatre directors active in Pest during the first half of the 19th century.14 A variant of the subject, the ballad of Agnes Bernauer reached the operatic stage as well (abbé G. J. Vogler’s lost opera: Albert der Dritte von Bayern, 1781; Karl Krebs: Agnes Bernauer, 1833).15 An elaboration of the tragic fate of Ines served as a sujet for the opera Ines und Pedro oder Der Geist bei Montegalva by Johann Spech, the first conductor of the German Municipal Theatre in Pest. It was composed on a libretto after Sándor Kisfaludy’s poem Tátika [Antirrhinum] and premièred in 1814. Ten years later the same theatre staged it again.16 Interest in the literary sources of the drama may have arisen in theatrical circles after the revival of Dugonics’s play in 1838. A sign of this interest can be seen in the fact that the fashion magazine Regélő published by Gábor Mátray who was deeply involved with the theatre at the time, printed the story of Ines and Pedro in January 1839, one year before Erkel’s opera was staged.17

This literary publication must have had the same source Dugonics had drawn upon; the tragedy Ignez de Castro by Julius Friedrich von Soden first performed in 1784.18 The fundamental elements of the plot are identical in all of the cases: the heir to the crown has a mistress of noble birth but not of royal blood who bears him two illegitimate children. Convinced that this state of affairs endangered the throne, members of the court plot against the innocent lady and take her life. Von Soden’s drama was not completely unfamiliar to Hungarian audiences; it was played in German in different locations in Pest and Buda on eight occasions between 1790 and 1830.19 Moreover, it was staged in Hungarian in Kolozsvár, coinciding with the 1794 performance of Dugonics’s drama in Pest.20

Dugonics followed Soden’s drama very closely, thus his work is a transition between translation and adaptation. The remark Dugonics made in the preface to the printed edition of his Bátori Mária is fairly euphemistic: “I adapted it for the Hungarian theatre (copying some de Kasztro work lock, stock, and barrel) to make the impression of a genuine work”.21 In reality, the arrangement of the acts is almost identical in both plays, the characters correspond to each other in all respects, and, for the most part, the Hungarian drama follows its model word by word. Only the narrative sections between the scenes which report off-stage action and describe the motivation of the characters can be more or less regarded as Dugonics’s personal contributions. The Hungarian playwright’s own addition is the mystery surrounding the heroine’s character; his Bátori Mária turns out to be a member of the royal family (unfortunately as belatedly as Gennaros turns out to be the son of Lucrezia Borgia in Donizetti’s opera), whereby the love-tragedy is aggravated into a tragedy of the family. It was through intrigue that her descent was kept secret before the royal family and herself. Dugonics’s other major addition is that the murderers get caught at the end. This development reveals that the king has regretted his ambiguous behaviour leading to the murder, and by clearing up the situation it allows the son to forgive his father and leads to the complete resolution of the father-son conflict, the starting point of the drama. Carrying out the revenge devolves on Prince István but the curtain drops before he does it. It is remarkable that Egressy’s libretto omits both changes and returns to Soden’s solutions. By doing so, the text renders a surprisingly modern open ending to the opera.

From a dramaturgical point of view Egressy’s adaptation of Dugonics’s play was restricted to curtailing the list of the dramatis personae, compressing the original five acts into two and producing the appropriate texts for the inevitable closed numbers of the opera. The fourth scene in the first act of the opera, Mária’s appearance, coincides with the beginning of the second section of the original drama while the second act of the opera comprises the last three sections of the drama. Two minor characters, who would curb the unfolding of the conflict between father and son (Queen Buzilla, István’s mother and Szemerédi, the King’s right hand man), disappear from the libretto; moreover, the number of villains is reduced from three to two. Mária’s plan to take the veil, a motive present in Dugonics as well as in Soden, is missing in Egressy; it would not fit into the even flowing of the operatic plot. Similarly, the perjury of the successor to the throne, István, who concealed his marriage with Mária from his father is not retained by Egressy. The figure of the King who struggles to maintain a balance between personal and public interest and undergoes a fundamental transformation changing from an archaic despot to a noble, enlightened and forgiving ruler became slightly obsolete by the time it got to the opera stage more than fifty years after it was put in the limelight in the play. In Dugonics’s drama both Árvai and Szepelik harbour personal grievances towards the Bátori family, which reinforces their traditional role as villains. Traces of these private motivations can be found in the opera; we learn about Szepelik’s earlier futile attempt to marry Mária and about Árvai’s being humiliated by Mária’s brother Miklós in asides in No. 10 (Szepelik: “Proud as you are, Mária, you turned me down. / Now prepare for the wedding: death is your groom.”) and in the second finale (Mária [to the King, pointing at Szepelik]: “This one is miserably lovesick,” / [pointing at Árvai] “while the other one is fired by having fallen from grace.”) As far as the stock types of scenes in contemporary opera are concerned, Egressy adeptly recognised the melodramatic potential of several episodes in the original play. Thus, the prayer, the hunt scene and István’s forest vision of the murder had been depicted in Dugonics’s and Soden’s dramas whereas the drinking and hunting songs and the idea that István arrives to see the murdered Mária with his own eyes instead of being told about the fatality by a messenger originate with Egressy. The only rhymed section of the Hungarian drama is the lament over Mária’s body which had presumably been sung in the play since the first performances.22 The mad scene is the only cliché of contemporary opera which is apparently missing; in a different context however, Mária’s rejoicing aria of gratitude in No. 14 with its capricious melodic line, coloraturas and high pitches could very well convey the affect of madness, too.

Dugonics has rightly showed a certain self-assurance concerning his achievement in his “adaptation” of the Ines de Castro sujet “for the Hungarian theatre”, i.e. the success of his effort to harmonically implant a European theatrical topic into a Hungarian historical environment, or rather to insert real or legendary events of old Hungarian history into an itinerant subject. The view prevailing in the Erkel literature that the plot of Bátori Mária is pure fiction and most of the characters of the opera were freely invented is unfounded. Dugonics’s monstrous footnotes to his epico-dramatical creation use great scholarly apparatus to prove that all significant moments of the drama reflect authentic historical events and, in fact, apart from some minor details his data are corroborated by the findings of modern Hungarian historiography. It turned out that not only were King Kálmán (Koloman Beauclerc, 1096–1116) and his son István II (Stephen II, 1116–1131), a lesser known member of the House of Árpád, historical personalities but the political events delineated in the play were based on historical events and the minor characters were modelled after historical figures as well. Álmos and his son Béla, mentioned in the libretto as dissemblers waiting for an opportunity to raise the flag of the party against the king (“Álmos and Béla are on the outlook to dissent”, in No. 2), were real protagonists of the political struggles accompanying the reign of King Kálmán. The several-year-long struggle between Álmos and Kálmán for the throne was rooted in a peculiar order of succession to the throne. Since the previous king Ladislas I had no male heir, he had no other choice but to declare either Álmos or Kálmán, one of the two sons of his brother Géza, as the successor to the throne. His choice fell on Álmos.23 Nonetheless, due to circumstances still unexplained to these days Kálmán was crowned king of Hungary. Álmos even had to abdicate from the throne of Dalmatia and received dukedom over one third of Hungary in exchange.24 The ill-fated Dalmatia had first been annexed by Byzantium, then occupied in part by Kálmán in 1105; this historical event forms the starting point of the plot of the opera. However, there is but a fleeting remark in the opening chorus to reveal that the victorious troops of István were just returning from Dalmatia (“Gloomy clouds have lifted from our sky and drifted above Dalmatia now”) ; the rest of the libretto mentions the enemy only in general.25 Strangely enough, only the libretto bears traces of the allegation found in the Hungarian chronicle according to which “king Stephen did not want to marry lawfully but took up with concubines.26 The barons and leaders – feeling sorry for the abandonment of the country and the king’s absence of issue – brought him the daughter of Robert Guiscard of Apulia properly: Robert of Capua as a wife.”27

Reports about this noble Italian lady of Norman descent formed the historical prototype of Mária Bátori’s figure. According to Dugonics’s sources, she was an offspring of the Sicilian Buzilla28 dynasty, the family of KingKálmán’s wife. Her father, the uncle of the Hungarian queen had secretly sent her to Hungary to be brought up in the Transylvanian family of the Bátoris (who had had a long past behind and a glorious future before them) and in due course to accede to the throne as the wife of István. There is a reference to the secret upbringing of Mária in the first finale of the opera (“The triumphant groom takes his bride by the arm / – he cherished her in a deep solitude.”). The scheme was upset by Mária’s foster-father Sándor Bátori who, pretending that Mária was his own daughter, appropriated her dowry. In Dugonics’s play the plan and the real descent of Mária “Bátori” are shed light upon by a letter from Sicily which arrives too late; because the three murderous villains are already on the way to Leányvár. In any case it is thus beyond doubt that the main character of Erkel’s opera can be traced back to a real historical figure, even if it appears in the context of an inauthentic plot. The plot deviates from the recorded historical facts in a number of respects. According to the sources, the Sicilian lady did in fact ascend to the Hungarian throne and István is not known to have had children whereas Erkel’s István and Mária have two illegitimate children. In the opera, István’s first and lawful wife dies before the plot begins to unfold. The deceased Judit is the third historical person besides Álmos and Béla, whose name found its way to the libretto with the aim to help create a historical background. In reality she was a Polish princess whose purported marriage with István has not been substantiated by historical scholarship, despite close Polish–Hungarian ties in those days.

Critical Acclaim and the Concept of National Music

The German press of Pest had a positive attitude towards the première of Erkel’s first opera (see facsimile 13) and reviewed it in more detail than Hungarian critics did. This dissimilarity was not only due to the opera war whose fronts divided Hungarian critics, but also to differences in education. The average German critic could draw upon a long tradition of musical criticism in German and generally had a thorough musical education whereas Hungarian critics were literary gentlemen in most cases and did not possess any musical learning. Therefore, they were unable to treat musical problems in a professional manner. This explains why the majority of the Hungarian critics expressed themselves rather laconically compared to their German colleagues and approached music from a theoretical point of view.

Nevertheless, on the whole the contemporary press unambiguously transmitted the picture of the resounding success of Bátori Mária. It is worth examining the possible components of this success. One of the factors to be considered is the Hungarian elements in Erkel’s score which were easily recognisable to both the audience and the critics. Instrumental verbunkos elements could by then look back on a presence of several decades on the Hungarian stage, they had formed a part of the professional theatrical performances from their very birth in the late 18th century. Various types of Hungarian musical pieces had already proved the viability of making vocal adaptations of the verbunkos and also that the Hungarian style conformed to the structures of European art music to a limited extent. Finally, Hungarian audiences had got acquainted with contemporary opera in the German theatre by that time, and had also experienced the ecstasy of the first encounter with Italian, French and German operas that were at last performed in their native language in the National Theatre. The public hailed the breakthrough in Hungarian opera achieved by Erkel who combined three essential elements in Bátori Mária in a way that had theretofore been unprecedented on the Hungarian stage. He used the vernacular, he composed music of unquestionable genuineness, and blended the national text and national music to form a through-composed opera.29 The criticism of the great literary personality Ferenc Toldy (formerly named Schedel) thus proved adequate both in the context of national culture in general and that of the history of Hungarian opera in particular when he asserted: “At any rate, not only is this our first genuine serious opera but also one that is worthy of being the starting point in the history of the genre in Hungary”.30 The German critic of Pesther Tageblatt formulated a similar opinion in a remarkably professional analysis published after the première: “this opera has raised Hungarian music to equal status with that of the other branches of art”.31

Several Hungarian and German critics hailed Bátori Mária as the embodiment of the concept of Hungarian national opera.32 However, it also had its opponents who formulated a different opinion about the concept of national opera created by Erkel in his first experiment. The difference in judgement resulted from the conflicting postulations the parties set as the concept of national art. A moderately liberal literary circle around the periodical Athenaeum, including Bajza, Vörösmarty and Toldy, formed the “brain trust” of the National Theatre and expressed classicist aesthetic views. Thus, they focused on the classical qualities of Erkel’s work in their criticism and tended to depreciate the prominent presence of Hungarian elements. In 1842, Athenaeum declared in an essay comparing the newest local opera Gizul by Károly Thern and Bátori Mária that; “...both works are a remarkable reflection of the endeavour to give their schooling [i.e. musical technique] a Hungarian character, to adorn it as if it were in Hungarian garment. Bátori Mária is a product of the German (classical) school and, except for its national character, the author subordinated all aspects of composition to the requirements of classicism... [Erkel] created his work in a manner that enables it to withstand the changes of time and taste...”33 Obviously, if Hungarian opera intends to position itself on classical European foundations for the sake of universality, the Hungarian element must remain a mere garment. It is evident that Gábor Mátray (music director of the theatre in the first months of its existence) found the proportion of national elements in Bátori Mária too high for the same reason; “The composer has deftly woven in Hungarian melodies. They could well have been omitted in some places or at least less frequently repeated.” Classicism is again at stake; Mátray classified Bátori Mária disapprovingly as “contemporary romantic opera”. He condemned some numbers in which “the style inclines towards German romanticism” and contrasted them with other items of the opera like the King’s aria in the second act (“Who says that kings are a happy breed?”, in No. 10) or the ensemble concluding the same scene which he believed to be Italian and declared as strikingly successful as opposed to the Hunters’ song (No. 12), for example, which evidently represented the German tradition for Mátray, and proved to be ineffective34.

Hidden behind the postulation of classicism in all cases there lied the optimistic conviction of the Hungarian Reform Age that European art music forms could be reconciled with the Hungarian popular tradition. Differences in opinion originated in the critics’ judgement on whether or not the postulation is fulfilled by the opera. By contrast, the radical literary circle that broke with the ideals of Athenaeum and became known by the name Young Hungary, defined the national character by the individuality of its genesis rather than from the aspect of the universality of its treatment. They acclaimed the integrity of national art rather than its integration into a classical concept of art; although Hungarian music should seek to be attached to the trunk of the universal art of music, it should also remain an “independent, separate and original branch of the art”, retaining its distinctive features. The concern for the ethnic character of national music is characteristically interwoven with the defence of the dramatic individualisation on stage. When the insignificant playwright Imre Vahot demanded that historical figures should not be represented on the operatic stage, he came very close to the standpoint of Gábor Egressy, one of the greatest actors living at the time who claimed that music was incapable of describing human character.35 Moreover, when Vahot called Erkel’s attention to “the nature, customs and morals of the Hungarian race, and the music of the csárdás” in connection with Bátori Mária and warned him that “it is by no means sufficient to add some fragments from the spirit of our folk songs to a totality that is constructed along differing principles,” he was by no means voicing an isolated point of view but that of radical nationalism in music. In the 1840s similar views could be heard but sporadically. However, after the defeat of Hungary in the War of Independence of 1849 they became prevalent. Some declared then that Hungarian music would become “the fourth musical idiom” besides the German the Italian and the French.36

What both detailed critiques of the première do, the unknown German reviewer in Pesther Tageblatt and Gábor Mátray in Honművész, apart from discussing matters of principle, is to analyse the individual numbers of the opera.37 Between this two extremes critics do not seem to recognise the fact that the Hungarian character has a precise dramaturgical function in the opera as a musical means to reflect the moral conflict in the piece. The national musical style takes sides with Mária and István and musically represents purity and humanity as opposed to royal power and courtly intrigue. Individual analyses deserve special attention since not only do they word the critic’s own view but also report the reactions of the audience. Occasionally they also inform the reader about the circumstances of a given performance. It has already been mentioned how Mátray reported the acclaim the Italianate numbers had received. He also observed the predominance of the choruses and their high musical standard; other critics shared his view almost unanimously after the first night and the later performances of Bátori Mária38. The Pesther Tageblatt called Quartetto con coro (No. 3) (see facsimile 1) one of the most successful numbers of the opera, and strangely enough, also gave account of the ovation with which the audience greeted it; an ovation which was justified neither by the situation on the stage nor by the affect that was conveyed by the music. Apart from the quartet, Mátray also praised Mária’s Romanza (No. 4 – the following Cabaletta was missing at the première) and her Aria in the second act (No. 8). Whereas the Duetto in the first act (No. 6) was unanimously criticised. It was said to be reminiscent of Mozart rather than contemporary opera in instrumentation and musical idiom, it was deemed too long and a shortening was suggested (similarly to the opening chorus of the second act and the King’s scene in No. 10). Although the hunting chorus (No. 11) seemed affected to Mátray, his German counterpart merely spoke of the deficiencies of the performance. The unanimous praise of the first finale was disturbed by one voice of criticism the German reviewer criticised the wedding chorus for its ineffectiveness and weakness in composition. Citing counter-examples by Halévy and Auber, he ascribed the failure to the lack of clear distinction between church style and theatrical style on Erkel’s part. It is remarkable that the same review distinguished the closing section of the first finale (which he called Friss Magyar) from gypsy music, the memory of which was evoked by the mistaken manner in which the violinists of the orchestra had performed the music. It is an essential and telling moment that both critics judged the second finale of the opera as lengthy and ineffective. As we shall see later, Erkel found a remedy for all these problems.

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