Theatre under the Stars
Over the course of three weeks each summer, Hungary’s largest theatre springs up on the bare cobblestones of Szeged’s Dóm Square. Ever since its founding in 1931, the Szeged Open-Air Festival has been the most popular open-air stage in the country. Today, it awaits its audience – 4,000 visitors each evening and 70,000 annually – with a state-of-the-art festival venue of a truly European standard. The 2016 season entertained audiences with epic productions: viewers were enchanted by the galactic visual style of The Flying Dutchman, raved to the pop tunes of Mamma Mia! and adored the Hollywood charm of Singin' in the Rain.
The people of Szeged are already deeply familiar with the coordinated professional work that starts at the end of May in front of the Votive Church, the cathedral regarded as the symbol of the city. The country’s largest theatre sprouts up within three weeks every summer on the cobblestones of the square – on top of that, from nothing, as a greenfield project. In less than a month from the start of construction, actors and creative teams occupy the square in order to begin creating epic productions in this amazing location, on the stage under the stars.
In 2014, for the first time during its then 83-year history, the season was held in special surroundings. Unlike in the previous year, the auditorium and the stage, which were rigged with better technology than ever, were placed opposite the cathedral, in the space of the so-called ‘clock terrace’. In 2016, the format that had been introduced in 2014, and which by 2015 was already tested, familiar and fondly appreciated, had to be changed once more, which posed considerable challenges to the Festival. The magnitude of the entire constructed festival venue, which was staggering even before 2014, increased in size yet again.
The technical attributes of the country’s largest stage can only be measured in terms of record numbers. At the start of construction, the length of the metal pipes shipped to Dóm Square alone was almost 18,000 metres, which means that if laid out end to end, they would reach from Budapest to Szentendre. The total weight of the structures is 140,000 kilograms. The 1,000-square-metre stage, which together with the wings and the technical and backstage areas exceeds 2,000 square metres and can bear 1,000 tonnes of weight. The portable components are delivered to Dóm Square by 20 trucks weighing 24 tonnes each. This year, the finished venue welcomed its visitors with a state-of-the-art look of a European standard.
In 2016, at the two locations on Dóm Square and on the Újszeged Open-Air Stage, the audience could watch a total of 26 performances of 13 productions. Every genre, including opera, dance, operetta, spoken-word theatre and symphonic music in concert form was represented in a popular theatre programme, with a novelty – contemporary circus – also welcoming visitors. Altogether, 72,294 people attended the events.
Art director Gyula Harangozó looked back on the season’s most celebrated shows, emphasising that besides the popular, light performances of summer evening entertainment, they had also successfully made important artistic achievements. This included the opening performance, The Flying Dutchman, which was spectacularly staged by Máté Szabó in his debut on the square. This was the first time the Festival's audience got the chance to watch a full-length opera by Wagner. The director and his creative team came up with a unique concept: they flew the classic work into outer space. Opera singers Boldizsár László, Mihály Kálmándy and Szilvia Rálik, as well as the special guest star of the production – the winner of the first Britain’s Got Talent, Paul Potts – played out this beautiful love story in the far reaches of the galaxy.
The other important new premiere, Singin' in the Rain, directed by the art director himself was also a major undertaking. Working in tandem with co-director Szilárd Somogyi, he turned the Hollywood musical into a rousing festival performance, even using a unique and challenging technology to make it rain on stage. During the four-minute-long tune Singing in the Rain, 532 litres of water drenched the stage in the form of raindrops. The actors – András Máté Gömöri, Annamari Dancs, Miklós Máté Kerényi, Dóra Szinetár, János Gálvölgyi and Andrea Szulák all enjoyed the scene very much.
Scenery evoking the cinema as a genre was evident in several elements of the stage design. The grandiose studio ambience in which the piece was set was made up of film strips and reels. Rita Velich’s several dozen beautiful, colourful costumes fit into the greyish, metallic surroundings perfectly. As the designer herself adores the era, she threw herself into the task with real pleasure, immersing herself in the world of feathery hats, tight tweed skirts, endlessly long pearl necklaces, lightweight georgette dresses, elegant suits and trench coats.
The Hungarian National Dance Ensemble performed Dracula’s Last Dance on the Dóm Square stage, and the audience got to watch the Budapest Operetta Theatre’s guest performance, Me And My Little Brother. Meanwhile, mega productions, such as the roaringly successful ABBA musical Mamma Mia! (the finale of which saw actors invite the audience to dance on stage) and Les Misérables, with the cast of the Madách Theatre, also returned. The Festival's popular and must-see ‘gift concert’ gave the audience an unforgettable experience this year with a performance of amazing melodies by the Szeged Symphonic Orchestra conducted by Tamás Pál and featuring pianist Gergely Bogányi and his “wonder piano”.
The season-closing The Comedy of Errors also returned from the previous year (2015) and proved yet again, with its full house, that spoken-word theatre has its place on Dóm Square. Even listing the names of the actors that the 12,000-strong audience saw on the stage of the Festival’s celebrated premiere is exciting: the cast Miklós Gábor Kerényi selected for Szeged included Dóra Szinetár, Anna Pálmai, Bálint Adorjáni, Viktor Klem, Áron Molnár, Péter Telekes, Győző Szabó, Piroska Molnár, Imre Csuja, Judit Rezes, Zoltán Bezerédi, Vilmos Vajdai, András Márton and a number of deservedly beloved local actors.
Standing out among the performances on the Újszeged Open-Air Stage was the unique contemporary circus performance Virtus by the Éva Duda Dance Company, as this was the first time the Szeged audience had the chance to watch a performance of this genre. On top of that, never before had a show with such extensive technological requirements been put on in Újszeged. The management is also proud of the production of The Witness, which was an independent premiere in Újszeged, and the audience also loved it: it drew two full houses. Újszeged also hosted two other successful shows: A Stormy Night and The Mousetrap.
A couple of days after this season’s final show, the management announced the schedule for 2017. The season will start with Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca on the 30 June, and the popular opera will return to the stage on 1 July. It is already an exceptional occurrence in the history of the Festival to have a show return for three consecutive years to Dóm Square, but Mamma Mia! simply cannot be omitted from the repertoire: just like in 2014, 2015 and 2016, the ABBA musical will appear on the programme again in 2017. Another returning show will be Singin' in the Rain – not surprisingly, as the audience absolutely adored it. It will be back for three performances on 14, 15 and 16 July.
The Comedy of Errors proved the merits of performing spoken theatre on Dóm Square, so the organisers will not skip this opportunity in 2017 either. Another popular Shakespeare comedy will be created on 28 July: Twelfth Night. It will then play for another two nights (29 and 30 July).
Victor Hugo has also been represented by one or more of his epic novels in the programme for the third consecutive year. After Les Misérables, the audience can watch the very first Hungarian premiere of the musical version adapted from Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame. The Disney musical will be presented on 11, 12, 13, 18, 19 and 20 August, in collaboration with the Budapest Operetta Theatre.