Budapest blossoms with its Spring Festival. This year Lorin Maazel conducted Brahms and Strauss, Steven Isserlis played eloquent Haydn and CPE Bach, Neville Marriner nursed the Danubia Youth Orchestra through some spirited Walton and Elgar, and The Puppet Theatre mounted a French view of Imre Madach's Shavian marathon The Tragedy of Man. There was fresher fare, too: an 80th birthday celebration of Ligeti, and the marking of the 70th birthdays of Penderecki (with the Lithuanian National Orchestra) and the Ferenc Farkas pupil Miklos Kocsar (a mass and motets in St Matthew's Church on Buda Hill from the immaculate Pro Musica Girls' Choir); plus the BBC Symphony Orchestra giving the Hungarian premiere of Peter Eotvos's Trumpet Concerto, Jet Stream.
It was at more compact venues such as the Thalia, Vig and Jozsef Katona theatres that there was a flair for edgy paradox closer to Western production values. Balazs Kovalik and Sandor Zsoter – Budapest's equivalent of Richard Jones – are among Hungary's most imaginative, cutting-edge opera and theatre directors. Zsoter's teasing production of The Bacchae for the Katona Studio (shaped, aptly, like an Athenian dance-floor) was matched by his impudent Greek drama parody, Getting Horny, for the main house the following night. For Szoter, as for Euripides, nothing is quite what it seems. What might have seemed suggestive gimmickry – mountain bikes, a teased football, a lady's shoe, a shattered flowerpot, a skein of scarlet wool, a loaf of bread (for Pentheus's mauled head) – became integral to the charged pacing. The performances were lithe and gymnastic, notably Ervin Nagy's sleekly somatic Dionysus and Judit Rezes's solo tour-de-force as a nastily knowing chorus. Both reappeared in the parody – a witty, sparky and seamy comment on the Greek satyr play genre.
Zsoter's new double bill of Schoenberg's Erwartung and Zemlinsky's Der Zwerg ("The Dwarf") was a shot in the arm for Hungary's hitherto staid National Opera House. The productions shared the same memorable set, based by designer Maria Ambrus on a famous Budapest art nouveau arcade. The glorious German soprano Anja Silja (something of a scoop for Budapest) seemed unhappily stymied, however, in Schoenberg's monodrama, frozen in a rearstage lift, her isolation complete, and the claustrophobic horror was diminished by shaky stage machinery. More captivating was Janos Kovacs's handling of the orchestra: this outstanding conductor, still in his prime, brings intelligence, clarity and personality to everything he touches. He should be bombarded by requests from all over Europe.
Visually more attractive was Zsoter's approach to Der Zwerg: not so much in costume designer Mari Benedek's garish colour coordination (an all-lime-green female chorus parade recalled David Pountney in "archer" mode) as in Zsoter's sharp and relevant treatment of the twin main characters. Oscar Wilde's 1888 story, also used by Schreker for a short ballet and the basis of the 1915 opera Die Gezeichneten, emerged as a tale of two shy apprentices in love. Eszter Wierdl's wonderfully sung, sympathetic Infanta almost became a clone of Jozsef Csak's cross-dressed Dwarf, whose lucid, poignant tenor and touching, stylised moves caught the piece's Gunter Grass-like inhibitions completely.
Best of all was Balazs Kovalik's spare, intelligent new treatment of Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle. Spurning the State Opera's love of kitschy battlements of 1850s hue, Kovalik set the opera firmly in Bluebeard's mind: the audience itself became the mysterious doors; the orchestra, placed onstage and mirrored, reflected the pure reality Bluebeard confronts and understands, and Judith for all her enquiries, does not. This production traded in earth, air, snow, light, water, and fire rather than rural vistas, in mimetic moves and elemental silences. Peter Fried and Andrea Melath gave the performance of their lives, and the orchestral and solo quality, with Janos Kovacs both conducting and supplying the verbal prologue, was out of this world.
Final performance of 'Erwartung' and 'Der Zwerg' tomorrow (0036 1353 0170)