The Festival Orchestra’s performance on 13 October in the Millenáris Theatre, as part of their midnight concert series, created a stir that even reached the editorial team of The New York Times (vasarnapihirek.hu)
Those who live at night, or at least go to bed late, enjoyed a special debut. Iván Fischer, who has recently been deemed by the German Klassik Radio to be one of the ten best conductors in the world, also premiered an opera at his composer’s evening, held in Hungary for the first time. Rumour has it that only these audiences will be able to enjoy The Red Heifer, a one-act opera about the Tiszaeszlár blood libel, because the composer does not plan to perform it anytime in the future.
As an introduction, the artist impressed us with his piece entitled Tsuchigumo, meaning The Earth Spider (sic), which has already been performed outside Hungary. The story about the mystical arthropod is an almost twenty-minute-long version of the Noh theatre’s well-known drama infused into a kabuki, which is, indeed, a masterpiece of art. The impressive performance of the dancer impersonating the spider made the satiric scene perfect, which was full to the brim of marvellous musical ideas, quotations and references. The effect was heightened by the chorus reminiscent of revolutionary songs recited by the actors gathered to celebrate the triumph over evil, whose deeply ironic tone was a phenomenal success.
Iván Fischer has long been occupied with the 19th-century story of the Jewish men accused of having ritually murdered the Christian Eszter Solymosi, he tried in vain to compose an opera about it several times, until Tiszaeszlár became inevitably topical. He was not so much concerned with the lawsuit itself, but rather the spiritual mystery, as he explained it to the audiences, even sitting on beanbags, before the chamber opera entitled The Red Heifer started.
Then a barefooted tow-headed girl with a ponytail appeared on stage, walking a red paper-mâché cow and singing in a trilling voice. At the end of the first scene, all the life-size puppet animal from the Old Testament did was tread on Eszter’s toes, but this started an avalanche – invisible for the time being. The audience found themselves in the middle of a still boisterous (and already long enough) scene with cheerful dancing in the Red Cow Inn, known from Gyula Krúdy’s novel (who also appeared on the scene), where a boy with earlocks in a black kaftan loitered among the roisterous young people wistfully – this was Móric, who would later betray his people and even renounce his Judaism. Then the innkeeper’s wife appeared, a woman famous for her shaggy red hair sticking out in all directions (namesake of the inn), and overwhelmed the obstreperous crowd and us listeners with her virtuoso aria. The grotesque and ironic tone insinuated a tragedy. Eszter’s disappearance and Móric’s confession in the form of a rap set the scene for the blood libel, the boy’s father and brothers were handcuffed.
In the most dignified scene of the opera, Lajos Kossuth showed up by protesting against anti-Semitism. The red cow on the meadow sang about catharsis. Jewish men were cleared of the charge, and the father got on the construction imitating a train without a word. He embraced his traitorous son.
For a minute there, we were all on that train.