Bite And Drive: The Magnificent Tangerine
The MHS Review 343 Vol. 9, No. 1 • 1985
click on the cover to return to the table of contents
David M. Greene
Suddenly I found myself reading that Bartok's ballets included The Wonderful Tangerine.
Why, I'm not sure, but it used to be that one could recognize the death rattle of an American record manufacturer by its licensing of Soviet records. There was one such company that expired and was resurrected innumerable times, until, swanlike, it sang its final melodiya back in the '70s. Its products continue, inexplicably, to tum up in sale bins, and among such I once came upon a Soviet-derived record of Bela Bartok's only opera.
I should have expected something odd because it was titled The Castle of the Duke Bluebeard instead of the usual Bluebeard's Castle. I bought it out of curiosity and while playing it, I cast my eye idly over the liner notes, which, like the title, obviously had been supplied by the Russians. Suddenly I found myself reading that Bartok's ballets included The Wonderful Tangerine. I did a double take. What on earth was this: something I'd not heard of? I went to my study and checked it out. Only two ballets were listed: The Wooden Prince (A fabol faragott kiralyfi) and The Miraculous Mandarin (A csodalatos mandarin). Suddenly it dawned on me: the tangerine is a variety of the mandarin, or mandarin orange as we call it. But it's tempting to imagine a new and fruitier choreography!
Aside from a number of folk-based works and his second String Quartet, Bartok devoted most of the second decade of this century to his three stage works. He completed the opera in 1911 and revised it twice before its 1918 premiere. The Wooden Prince was written between 1914 and 1917, and produced in the latter year. Both were successful. Success as a composer was something new to Bartok. Earlier, after a number of disastrous concerts, he had pretty much given up hope, dissociated himself from the musical life of Budapest, moved to the suburbs, and given himself over mostly to his folk music researches. His always frail health exempted him from military service when war broke out in 1914.
In 1918, with the sweet smell of success in his nostrils, Bartok began work on the Mandarin on the reasonable assumption that it would follow its predecessors to the stage. But in November the war came to an end; Hungary split off from Austria, declared her republican independence, and immediately was invaded from all sides and occupied by her neighbors. In the midst of all this, Bela Kun, a disciple of Lenin, arrived from Russia, organized a Hungarian Communist Party, was jailed, and then was released to form a leftist government.
Bartok, whose career had been hampered by bourgeois stodginess, and who tended toward starry-eyed idealism, publicly embraced the new regime, as did many of his friends. But Kun soon plunged the country into a bloodbath and In August 1919 had to flee to Vienna before the forces of the rightist Admiral Horthy, who thereupon assumed power. Horthy was not sympathetic to Kun's former adherents. Bartok found himself on shaky ground, and Egisto Tango, his ally at the Budapest Opera, left the country. Consequently, the Mandarin was not produced at that period (or in Budapest until after World War II). The premiere took place in Cologne in 1926 and created such a scandal that Bartok, a year later, cast his lot with an orchestral suite in the shape of a three-movement symphony, which leaves out most of the latter part of the ballet.
The music has the bite, the drive, and the dissonance of Stravinsky's Sacre du printemps; but it was Menyhert Lengyel's book that shocked viewers. The plot is this: In a slum three crumbums put a beautiful young girl up to enticing prospective muggees into their dive. They rob the first customer, an old gaffer, and throw the next, an impecunious stripling, out of the door. Then comes the Mandarin. He is obsessed by the girl and when she tries to embrace him he attacks and pursues her. The robbers catch him, seize his valuables, and smother him with pillows. But he revives and continues his single-minded pursuit. One of the bad guys runs him thrice through with a rusty sword. Same result. Then they hang him. But the girl is now taken with him and has him cut down, whereupon he throws himself on her and, as the books used to say, has his will of her. Happy, he bleeds to death. (Talk about TV violence! Keep the kiddies away from the ballet!)
The Dance Suite, a non-ballet, was written in 1923 on a commission to mark the 50th anniversary of the union of the cities of Buda and Pest. Bartek tells us that he drew on folk themes from Hungary, Rumania, and the Arab world for it. It also marks the end of his first, increasingly chromatic period, and the onset of a time of relative unproductivity, which perhaps had some connection with the divorce of his first wife in 1923 and his marriage to his pupil Ditta Pasztory soon after.