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Háry János is a "Hungarian folk opera" (that is, a spoken play with songs, in the manner of a Singspiel) in four acts by Zoltán Kodály to a Hungarian libretto by Béla Paulini (1881-1945) and Zsolt Harsányi, based on the comic epic The Veteran (Az obsitos) by János Garay. The first performance was at the Royal Hungarian Opera House, Budapest, 1926. The sub-title of the piece is Háry János kalandozásai Nagyabonytul a Burgváráig - János Háry: his Adventures from Nagyabony (Great Abony) to the Vienna Burg. The UK stage premiere was at the Buxton Festival in 1982 conducted by Anthony Hose with Alan Opie in the title role.
The story is of a veteran hussar in the Austrian army in the first half of the 19th century who sits in the village inn regaling his listeners with fantastic tales of heroism (in the tradition of Miles Gloriosus). His supposed exploits include winning the heart of the Empress Marie Louise, the wife of Napoleon, and then single-handedly defeating Napoleon and his armies. Nevertheless, he finally renounces all riches in order to go back to his village with his sweetheart.
Kodály wrote in his preface to the score: "Háry is a peasant, a veteran soldier who day after day sits at the tavern spinning yarns about his heroic exploits... the stories released by his imagination are an inextricable mixture of realism and naivety, of comic humour and pathos." He also comments that "though superficially he appears to be merely a braggart, essentially he is a natural visionary and poet. That his stories are not true is irrelevant, for they are the fruit of a lively imagination, seeking to create, for himself and for others, a beautiful dream world." Háry János embodies the poetic power of folklore to go beyond political frustrations; Kodály intended to bring his national folk music to an operatic setting.
The opera, and the suite, begin with an orchestral 'musical sneeze', best explained in Kodály's own words: "According to Hungarian superstition, if a statement is followed by a sneeze of one of the hearers, it is regarded as confirmation of its truth. The Suite begins with a sneeze of this kind! One of Háry's group of faithful listeners … sneezes at the wildest assertions of the old tale-spinner."
|Role||Voice type||Premiere Cast, 16 October 1926
(Conductor: Nándor Rékai)
|Háry János||baritone||Imre Palló|
|Örzse, his betrothed||mezzo-soprano||Izabella Nagy|
|Emperor Franz||spoken||Sándor Pusztai|
|Emperor’s mother-in-law||Teréz Fazekas|
|Öreg Marci, emperor’s coachman||baritone||János Körmendy|
|Mária Lujza (wife of Napóleon)||spoken||Rózsi Marschalkó|
|Knight Ebelasztin||tenor||Gyula Toronyi|
|Countess Melusina||spoken||Józsa Szabó|
|Baroness Estrella||spoken||Aranka Pállfy|
|General Krucifix||spoken||Rezsö Kornai|
|General Dufla||spoken||Zsigmond Hubai|
|A student||Kalmán Szügyi|
|Generals, French and Hungarian soldiers, people at the borders and at court|
Prologue - The Tale Begins
In the Hungarian village of Nagyabony regulars gather at the tavern, to listen to the tales of the old soldier Háry János. With glass in hand they listen to his tales.
First Adventure - On the frontier near Moscow
A border crossing point; frost and ice on the Austrian side, sun shining on the Hungarian side. János and Örzse meet Mária Lujza the daughter of the Emperor Franz at the border crossing where she is not being allowed to cross. János pushes the border gate along the ground, so that she finds herself across the frontier; in gratitude the princess immediately rewards him with an offer to come to Vienna and enter the Imperial Guard. Örzse follows him.
Second Adventure - In the Garden of Vienna Burg
Háry János enjoys the attentions of the princess and eventually becomes a general, to the fury of the envious the chamberlain Ebelasztin who then serves a declaration of war with Napoleon.
Third Adventure - A battlefield at Milan.
Háry János single-handedly wins the battle and has Napoleon kneeling for mercy. The emperor’s wife now wants to win his heart, to the consternation of Örzse.
Fourth Adventure – Vienna Burg.
The preparations for the wedding of Háry and the infatuated princess are underway. Örzse arrives to take leave of Háry but he is true to her and his homeland, so despite all the imperial trappings they leave the court.
Back at the inn in Nagyabony János concludes by saying that the condition of freeing Napoleon was that a gold watch should be sent to the headman of the village - who replies that he never got it. János states that the only person who can corroborate his story is Örzse – who is now dead.
From the music of the opera, Kodály extracted the orchestral Háry János Suite, a popular piece in the classical repertoire. This notably includes the cimbalom, a traditional Hungarian variant of the hammer dulcimer. The world première of the suite was at the Gran Teatro del Liceo Barcelona, on 24 March 1927, by the Pau Casals Orchester conducted by Antal Fleischer.
The movements of the Háry János Suite are as follows:
- Prelude; the Fairy Tale Begins
- Viennese Musical Clock
- The Battle and Defeat of Napoleon
- Entrance of the Emperor and His Court
People may assume that the title Háry János refers to a man named Harry. In Hungarian, names are always presented in the order 'surname', 'first name' (as in Bartók Béla and Liszt Ferenc). Therefore, the title refers to a man called János (a common first name in Hungary, equivalent to the English John), whose surname is Háry. The name was never 'anglicized' (i.e. with the names put in the more usual order) outside Hungary.
- Háry János sung in Hungarian, conducted by István Kertész, with English narration by Peter Ustinov. Decca
- Háry János sung in Hungarian with dialogue, conducted by János Ferencsik. Hungaroton
- Háry János sung in Hungarian, with French narration by Gérard Depardieu. Friedemann Layer. Accord
- Tallian T. Háry János. In: The New Grove Dictionary of Opera. Macmillan, London and New York, 1997.
- Milnes R. Two resounding sneezes. 3 [Radio 3 magazine], January 1983, p41-46.
- Quoted in: Eösze L. Zoltán Kodály – his life and work. Collet’s Holdings Ltd, London, 1962.
- Quoted in liner notes by Harold Lawrence adapted for CD recording on Mercury label, 1990.
- Houlahan M & Tacka P. Zoltán Kodály – a guide to research. Garland, New York & London, 1998.
- Playbill of original production, reproduced in programme of Erkel Színház, May 2001.
- Universal Edition page on Háry János Suite Accessed 1 June 2011.