Hunyadi László overture
Overture to Ferenc Erkel’s Hunyadi László
Opera in 4 Acts.
(b. Gyula, 7 November, 1810 — d. Budapest, 15 June 1893)
Music by Ferenc Erkel, Libretto by Béni Egressy from Lőrinc Tóth’s play Hunyadi László
Setting: 1456–1457, Nándorfehérvár (Belgrade), Temesvár (Timișoara) and Buda
Premiere of the opera: Pest, National Theatre, 27th January 1844
Premiere of the overture: Pest, National Theatre, 2nd October, 1845
The Magyar Színház, ‘Hungarian Theatre’, opened in Pest in 1837, subsequently rechristened as the Nemzeti Színház, ‘National Theatre’ in 1840, inaugurated by a performance of Ferenc Erkel’s first opera. An institution originally conceived to cultivate theatrical works in the Hungarian language, the theatre nevertheless became the beating heart of Hungarian opera until the mid-1880s, with the opening of the Királyi Operaház, the Royal Opera House (today, the Magyar Állami Operaház, the Hungarian State Opera). Erkel quickly became vital to professional opera performance in Pest in his capacity as Principal Conductor of the National Theatre from 1838, remaining integral to Hungarian musical traditions thenceforth until his death some five decades later. During his long and productive career, Erkel produced eight operas drawn from Hungarian history (and one act for a further opera: the occasional work Erzsébet composed for an imperial visit in 1857), and accordingly is traditionally adorned with the title ‘the father of Hungarian opera’. In the wake of the decisive, if not unanimous, success of his first opera, Bátori Mária, the Buda-Pest audience eagerly awaited the composer’s subsequent venture in this genre. The first definitively successful opera in the Hungarian vernacular, Hunyadi László historically forms part of the core cannon of theatres across former greater Hungary in an almost unbroken performance tradition which continues today.
In the ‘century of nationalism’, amidst an obsession with history sweeping Europe, Hunyadi László is no exception among Erkel’s operas which draw their plots almost exclusively from Hungarian medieval history. Derived from a play by the lawyer and politician, Lőrinc Tóth, the plot culminates with the execution of László Hunyadi, the son of noblewoman Erzsébet Szilágyi and the General of Hungary, János Hunyadi, in 1457 on the orders of King Ladislaus V (Duke of Austria; King of Hungary, Croatia and Bohemia). By the nineteenth-century this narrative became one of the most potent topics of historical art in Hungary, inspiring plays, poems and paintings alongside Erkel’s opera. In the late eighteenth-century, plays accentuate concerns with power structures: opposing absolutism. In the years approaching the 1848 revolution, this narrative shifted weight to the unjust betrayal of the title role, later stressing the repentance of a manipulated King in the immediate post-revolution period. Erkel’s opera centres on the title roles’ demise as a vessel for emphasising historical abuses of foreign power, aligning with contemporary metamorphoses of underlying themes through strategic emphasis on the various historical figures. The curtain rises to a series of quickly escalating scenes recounting the death of Ulrich II of Celje (in Hungarian: Cillei Ulrik) at the Hunyadi fortress of Nándorfehérvár (Belgrade). Cillei’s plot to secure the downfall of the young Hunyadi – an agreement with Serbian ‘despot’ Đurađ Branković – is revealed, and in a confrontation, László’s men kill Cillei in defence of their lord. When the King, who was in the plot, enters, vulnerable and surrounded by those whose loyalty lies with the young Hunyadi, the King promises there will be no consequences for Cillei’s death. However, the power-thirsty Palatine, Gara, father of László’s fiancée, Mária Gara, takes advantage of the King’s love for his daughter to increase his personal power. Gara easily convinces the irresolute monarch that the Hunyadis’ are a threat and promises his daughter’s hand in marriage by way of securing the downfall of the house of Hunyadi. The King finally revokes his oath and orders László’s death, and the opera climaxes with an execution scene relayed by Erzsébet Szilágyi in which the executioner is only successful on his fourth strike.
Read full preface > HERE