Liszt: The Legend of St. Elizabeth

KocsárkicsiFerenc Liszt’s oratorio The Legend of St. Elizabeth is going to be performed in the Vigadó (Redoute) of Pest on 15 August 2015 again, 150 years after its premiere, on the recommendation of Éva Marton, opera singer, Kossuth-Prize-winner, holder of the Artist of the Nation Award, board member of the Hungarian Academy of Arts. In the following the composer Árpád Könczei asks Balázs Kocsár, the conductor of the work, about the jubilee performance of this composition.

When and where did you first hear Liszt’s large-scale oratorio?
I first heard the work live at the Basilica of Esztergom in the early 1990s conducted by Ádám Medveczky. It immediately struck me that it was more than a mere oratorio: it represented a large-arched, dramatic unity of operatic scenes and powerful symphonic poems making the stage area perceptible. In 2010, when I managed to include Christus, Liszt’s other, more dramatic oratorio, which is even more problematic in its performance, among the first performances of the Csokonai Theatre Debrecen, my motive was evidently to give expression to my belief that this remarkable masterpiece could best reach the audience under theatrical circumstances. Thus the production was accompanied and reinforced by motion on the stage, choreography, and projection.

Do you see any connection or similarity between the two oratorios?
The two oratorios might as well be claimed to be parallel in genesis; they are, however, entirely different. The Miracle, the ninth of the fourteen movements of Christus, has the most stage-like dramaturgy while the tenth and fourteenth movements (the end of the second and third parts) typically remind us of static operatic finales. The most dramatic movement, the eleventh one, forecasts the late Verdi’s monologues of staggering depth. By contrast, each of the six movements of The Legend of St. Elizabeth is a loose dramaturgic sequence of dramatic operatic situations full of action and apt for being placed in a scenic environment. The question is how it can be realized in a static oratorio performance at the concert hall of the Vigadó of Pest, whether outward and inward spaces, stage situations could and should be made perceptible. We are naturally going to strive for it.

What kinds of considerations have led you in connection with the revival of The Legend of St. Elizabeth? What are we to pay attention to?
In order to achieve that the audience gain the greatest enjoyment possible and comprehend the piece, it is extremely important that each performer – singers and instrumentalists alike – be fully aware of the tiniest detail of each scene. We will strive for formulating the dramatic, theatrical moments, and characters extremely precisely, and making them unambiguous for the listeners as imagined by Liszt in melody, harmony and instrumentation.

In the first, 1867 edition of the score by Kahnt the oratorio was printed with German text while at the 1865 premiere the work was performed in Hungarian translated by Kornél Ábrányi, one of Liszt’s contemporaries. Which language will the present performance of The Legend of St. Elizabeth use?
The oratorio will be presented in Hungarian, in compliance with Liszt’s explicit wish. To follow the composer’s intention causes, however, serious difficulties. Let me state in advance that as an opera conductor I always stick to the composer’s original plan and expressions, whenever possible, that is to performing a work in the original language. In the case of some works (e.g. by Verdi, and Prokofiev) this can mean several versions. As for this oratorio, we know that at the premiere Liszt conducted the work in Hungarian. The difficulty is, however, that in the available sources Ábrányi’s text is incomplete and laden with serious problems of rhythm, prosody and singability. Later various translations were made but we think that on the occasion of the anniversary we should confirm the text approved by Liszt and present it to the general public. I deem it important to remark in this context that though Verdi’s and Puccini’s operas abound in obsolete turns and expressions hardly understandable for present-day Italian speakers, nobody would have the idea of renewing or rewriting the text of these operas. Why should we be afraid of these 18th-century texts or the original versions of Erkel’s operas? But back to Liszt: with a bit of correction and by retaining the composer’s original musical and rhythmical intentions we have succeeded in renewing, refreshing Ábrányi’s original text for the entire oratorio. Based on the original score a uniformly emended orchestral score has also been prepared for the performance.