Saturday, February 28, 2015

A Night at the Opera. Bank Ban

Last night, we heard the famous (in Hungary) opera Bank Ban by the "father of Hungarian opera," Ferenc Erkel. We had never heard of Erkel or Bank Ban, but were intrigued by seeing something described as so quintessentially Hungarian in the Hungarian State Opera House.

Ferenc Erkel whose statue sits on the left side of the main opening to the opera house.  Liszt is on the right.
BanK Ban has only ever been performed in Hungary.  If you look up the opera on the internet, you will find two classes of opinons why.  One group says it's because the opera is second-rate; the other, that the opera is first-rate, but that it is difficult to find opera companies who can sing in Hungarian outside of Hungary itself.  We, from our limited opera-going experience, now belong to Group 2.  In a word, we loved it.

The opera was first performed in 1861.  The plot is too complicated to summarize but it involves a 13th century historical incident when Hungary was being ruined by foreign powers.  It thus has many analogues with 19th century Hungary.  These analogues are highlighted in many patriotic arias, and there are hints of folk music (including a violin sounding like a balalaika) running through it.  It is a unabashedly sentimental at times, more psychologically complex than the plot summary suggests, and includes folk dancing, drinking songs, and lush, melodic music that is easy to like on a first hearing.  Whether it is a Great Opera is hard to say.  But it was magical hearing it when and where we did.

Here we are in the gorgeous Budapest Opera House waiting for the performance to start.

Here are some photos of the opera house itself.

Here are some pictures of the cast.

And here is the absolute star of the opera, B.Atilla Kiss, the wonderful Hungarian tenor who sang the character of the heroic and tragic knight, Bank Ban

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Rumbach Street Synagogue. Budapest Architecture.

There are three famous synagogues in the Jewish Quarter of Budapest.  The Dohany Street Synagogue, built in 1854-59, the largest synagogue in Europe; the Kazincky Street Orthodox Synagogue (subject of an earlier post); and the Rumbach Street Synagogue, built in 1872.  While the first two still function as synagogues, the Rumbach Street synagogue, not fully renovated, does not.   

The Rumbach Street Synagogue was designed by the Viennese architect Otto Wagner and is the only known building of his in Budapest.  It is built in the shape of an octagon and is said to have been an homage to the Dome of the Rock, a pilgramage site for Jews and Muslims in Jerusalem. The interior has been partially restored.

What was most remarkable to me was the richness of the color and the decoration.

From the outside


Monday, February 23, 2015

The Vago Brothers. Hungarian Architecture

We were in Oradea, Romania in 2009, when we first saw this little modernist gem. It is the Darvas-LaRoche House and it was designed by two brothers, Joseph and Laszlo Vago in 1910-1911.  Though Joseph and Laszlo Vago were born in Oradea, then part of Hungary, the Darvas LaRoche House is more Vienese than Hungarian.  Except for the statue (which itself is definitely not Hungarian) the building has no figural aspects.

The studs are meant to suggest rivets rather than embroidery knots.  

The Vago brothers also designed another house in Oradea, this one decorated with incised naturalistic figures and playful tiles.

When we went for one of our first walks in Budapest, we stumbled on one of the most famous buildings of the Vago Brothers, the toy shop,Arkad-Bazaar (1908-1909), on Dohany Utca on the edge of the Jewish District.

The Vago Brothers also designed the building (1907) for the Hungarian book printers and typefounders organization on what is now Gutenberg Ter. The building was meant to include apartments, shops and offices.

It has many of their characteristic features.

While the outside of the building is somewhat dilapidated, the inside is said to have been restored.  (Though getting inside these buildings is a major challenge.)

Later on a walk on Népszínház Utca, armed with a page pointing out many notable buildings, we came across one un-noted building that we immediately recognized as by the Vagos.

It is a wonderful feeling and a special kind of "knowing" to become familiar enough with an architect's style to be able to recognize their buildings.  (Admittedly the Vagos' style is unique.)  

The Vago brothers went on to buildm separately and together, other buildings in Budapest, including working on the famous Gresham Palace, now a fabulous Four Seasons hotel.  Many of their buildings, unlike the marvelously restored Gresham Palace, are quite dilapidated.  They collaborated until 1911.  Laszlo Vago (1875-1933) worked with other architects on city planning projects.  Jozsef Vago went on to work with Odon Lechner.  He also designed the beautiful Schiffer villa in Budapest,  A Marxist socialist, he emigrated to Switzerland and Italy.  He tried later to return to Budapest, but by then anti-semitic laws made working as an architect impossible.  He then emigrated to France and worked in urban planning.  

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Magda Szabo. The Door.

I recently read Magda Szabo's novel, The Door.  Szabo is an Hungarian writer, the novel is set in Budapest, and I bought it in a small bookstore in Buda.  So it came to me with many associations (and self-induced) demands.  During the last several months, I have read many Hungarian novels because I knew they were important--even when I wasn't always sure I liked the book.  The Door is an extraordinary novel--read in Budapest or anywhere else. 

The Door is narrated by a young female writer who has been pretty much silenced In Hungary.  The book opens when she and her husband are looking for someone to help keep their flat in order while they work.  They are referred by a friend to an older woman named Emerence who might take them on.  (It is Emerence who interviews the young couple, rather than the other way around.). Happily, they pass muster and Emerence includes them among the people she cleans, cooks, and shovels snow for.

Emerence is a strange and enigmatic character.  Although she rules the neighborhood, no one is allowed in her house. During the twenty or so years in which the novel takes place, Emerence and the young writer become close, even to the extent of Emerence treating her like a daughter.  But it is always on Emerence's terms and according to her standards of behavior. The secret of her house, like that of her past, is kept tightly guarded.  Eventually the young writer becomes recognized in Hungary and is awarded a prestigious prize.  In a strange plot twist, the writer is forced to choose between rescuing Emerence and attending the prize ceremony.  Her failure to make the right decision is foreshadowed in the novel's first scene.

Emerence and the writer live in two versions of  Hungary under Communism.  Emerence survived World War II and prides herself on being a worker.  She does not consider writing "work," and views the writer as spoiled and hapless. The writer comes from a privileged family and is able to sustain a somewhat luxurious life even in the midst of what would have been hard times in Hungary.  Both women are, in their way, admirable, but it is Emerence who holds the power--both in her unrelenting standards and in the secret past that lies behind her door.

The Door is a compulsively readable novel. Many of the reviews mention its autobiographical elements, but if it is autobiographical it is in no way sentimental or self-forgiving.  There is apparently also a recent movie starring Helen Mirren as Emerence, and I can well imagine her in the part.  But the novel's language--it's style, tone and affect--creates  a world that is uncanny and is difficult to visualize, even for someone reading it in the city in which it's set.  There is something deep, elemental, and Greek (as the novel hints) in its tragedy--a tragedy born in Hungarian history but hidden behind the barriers of conventional life.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Budapest Gastronomy 1. The Cafe Kor and The Meridien

Jazz at the Meridien

Last night we went to what has to be our favorite restaurant in Budapest, the Cafe Kor.  It is not the most elegant (and maybe not even always the absolute best food), but it is nonetheless our number one restaurant in Budapest.

We have been going there since our first visit to Budapest in 2002.  We have come back so often (everytime we visited Budapest in 2005, 2009, 2011, and 2014) that we are actually recognized by some of the staff.  The Cafe Kor (I am sorry I don't have a picture) is small and always crowded.  The menu is mainly Hungarian with a few other Continental dishes included.  It has lots of tourists but also lots of Hungarians, often in large parties.

Our dinner last night was wonderful.  I started with a glass of Hungarian champagne (and it's really good) and Tony had a beer.  We shared an appetizer plate that was as big as Texas of salmon carpaccio with red caviar and horseradish.  We then had a bottle of Sauska (a strong Hungarian red).  I had veal medallions with a kind of onion paprikash and roasted potatoes.  (And even with the "small portion" I couldn't finish it.)  Tony had something called "potato stew," which he described as the best potato soup he had ever eaten with some kind of fried meatballs to accompany.  We finished sharing a plate of fresh strawberries and ice cream with a bit of caramel sauce and powdered sugar.  We left completely happy.

After dinner we walked over to the Meridien to check out the bar.  On our first visit to Budapest in 2002, the dollar was incredlbly strong (.90 to the euro), and we were rich.  We stayed in Five Star hotels and ate out a lot.  (We are still relatively rich in Hungary this trip as the euro is weaker--though not as much as in 2002--and the forint weaker still.)  In the bar at the Meridien was a jazz trio with a girl singer.  We loved it and went everynight we were in Budapest.

On every visit to Budapest we returned to the Meridien.  For the price of a drink (a glass of Hungarian champagne and a beer), one could listen to great jazz, and when it was only us in the bar--as it often was--they played jazz for the real.  However, in 2011, we didn't go as much (the music had changed).  But we thought we would try it again.  So we went over after dinner and listened to a set.  It was terrific.  We recognized the drummer and bass player from before.  The pianist was new to us, and he was marvelous, as was the girl singer.

Dinner at the Kor and jazz at the Meridien has been an abiding pleasure in Budapest, and we are really happy this tradition can continue.  So next week we will be back to enjoy it again.  After all (at least for over two months more) we live in the city..

Friday, February 20, 2015

Villas in Buda. Budapest Architecture

Kelenhegyi uti-Studio-apartment building.  Guyula Kosztolanyi-Kann.  1902

Yesterday we walked over the Szabadgseg Bridge to the foot of Buda, right before the famous Gellert Hotel and Baths.  From there we wandered around looking at beautiful old houses.  One of the most beautiful was the blue building above.  It was designed by Gyula Kosztolanyi-Kann, a painter who also designed a few buildings/  This was a series of artists' studios (hence the big windows) and flats.  It has gorgeous secessionist motifs

We then just wandered through the neigborhood finding interesting buildings here and there.

We finished with one of Odon Lechner's last buildings.  Apparently it was built for his brother, but Lechner was dissatisfied with some of the workmanship and had it redone.  The mounting costs caused a break between the brothers.  Plus ca change.

These beautiful airy houses are different from many of those in Pest.  Buda feels more like the country, a beautiful place to live.

After our stroll, we had lunch at the famous Gellert Hotel and Baths.  (Smoked trout salad for me and crumbed black pudding for Tony, for those interested in gastronomy!)