Plots, patriots, murder and music

Is Ferenc Erkel the Magyar Verdi? His daring work Hunyadi Laszlo is full of political fervour

Perjured monarchs, scheming henchmen, an ominous march to the scaffold. Verdi perhaps? Or Donizetti? But no: Hunyadi Laszlo was composed by a Hungarian, Ferenc Erkel, one of the most sizzling opera composers of the 19th century.

Dorset Opera is staging Hunyadi Laszlo in Sherborne and London, with Hungarians (on loan from the Hungarian State Opera) in the lead roles. So is Erkel the Magyar Verdi?

"It's a fair parallel," suggests Dorset's new conductor, Dominic Wheeler. "He became a national property, like Verdi did in Italy. He hadn't quite Verdi's genius for theatre; stylistically he inclines to Bellini.

"You have to understand the political outrage Hungarians felt in the early 19th century, as second-class citizens in the Austrian Empire," Wheeler, who studied in Budapest, explains. "Erkel penned Hunyadi in the 1840s - the decade of European revolutions.

He couldn't write overtly 'political' opera; but by setting Hunyadi Laszlo in the 15th century, he could rail against oppression without too obviously treading upon the Emperor's toes." During the opera, the noble Hunyadi family sets itself against a corrupt regime. The death of Hunyadi père, Hungary's top general, plumps responsibility in the hands of his patriotic, headstrong young son, and Hungary in the hands of outright crooks. By the end, young Laszlo has been pardoned for a self-defence slaying, but, by a nasty twist of cynical fate, he is beheaded anyway.

In the music, notably the funeral march that is the opera's signature tune, you can hear them sharpening the chopper. "Erkel's villains are real flesh and blood, they're not cardboard," Wheeler claims. "It's quality music, well orchestrated, and Erkel shows a real feel for the shapes of lines and the language: every role is well written for voice. He writes thundering good choruses - he seems to have had a special affinity for female voices - and astonishingly good arias. The opening aria, for Laszlo's younger brother, Matyas, is profoundly touching.

But his best he saved for the boys' mother, Erzsebet: her passionate outpourings embrace wild, almost mad coloratura; she's an intuitive materfamilias (in one scene she vividly foresees her son's death), with real-life emotion: a kind of bionic superperson. The king's intriguing too: he's adolescent, erotic even, easily influenced, and withered by self-doubt. Then he makes this vow he can't keep - with devastating results."

Sherborne School Hall, Dorset (01935 816332; www.dorsetopera.com) Fri 15 and Sat 16 August at 7pm; UCL Bloomsbury Theatre, 15 Gordon St, London WC1 (020-7388 8822; www.the bloomsbury.com, Sat 18 August at 7.30pm. In association with the Hungarian Cultural Centre (020-7240 8448; www.hungary.org)

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