By Michael Roddy
BUDAPEST (Reuters) - When money runs low, it sometimes pays to gamble, and that's what the Budapest Spring Festival did this year lining up Hollywood star John Malkovich to portray a serial killer, and Russian virtuoso Maxim Vengerov to play his violin.
Vengerov, who cancelled two Budapest performances after he was sidelined in 2008 by a shoulder injury, but began playing regularly again in public last year, showed up last Saturday for a sold-out concert in Budapest's Palace of Arts concert hall.
There has been even greater suspense about Malkovich and whether he would appear for two performances of "The Infernal Comedy", based on the autobiography of Austrian serial killer Jack Unterweger, in a one-man show interspersed with opera arias and music, but festival director Zsofia Vitezy is confident.
"There are always some risks in a festival like this, we call them the risky performances," Vitezy told Reuters in an interview this week.
"But we are through with Vengerov and the contract is signed with Malkovich so I hope nothing bad will happen...I'm sure he's going to show up."
It helps that Vitezy has "the show must go on" spirit, because these are gloomy times in Hungary, which took a bailout from the European Union and the IMF in 2008, and is in the process of seeking more loans to keep its economy afloat.
Vitezy said the budget for the festival, marking its 32nd year and supported largely by the national and local governments, was cut by a third, forcing a scramble to put on a good show while saving money. The overall budget, including funds from sponsors, is 425 million forints ($1.91 million).
Inevitably, there were casualties. Vitezy scrapped one big concert, which she declined to describe further, and pared back other events, for example by cancelling, because of the high travel costs, the participation of a Mexican percussion group.
She also reduced the festival to 11 days from 17, which might be bad for tourism but helped maintain artistic integrity. The festival ends on March 26.
"We had to decide whether to have a two-week festival with weaker programs, or 11 days with stronger ones, and people say it was a good decision," she said.
Cutbacks aside, the festival has branched out from what used to be a fairly strict diet of classical music and opera, with the occasional jazz concert or ballet thrown in. There is now a greater variety of international and locally produced content.
One of the most ambitious new productions was a review of what the festival program calls "European salon music in the first half of the 20th century", mounted in the charming bijou Festival Theatre of the Palace of Arts by a high-spirited and handsome troupe of six Hungarians, including locally well-known actors and actresses.
The idea was to show the interactions of pre-war, music hall songs in European capitals, from the Iberian peninsula to the Balkans, but "Musica, Musique, Musik" also succeeded in capturing the flavor of a time that, for director Reka Pelsoczy, can never return.
"In these songs, you can sense that death is in them," Pelsoczy, who is an actress and director at the Jozsef Katona Theatre in Budapest, told Reuters.
"These are old songs and I know what happened afterwards, something happened that meant the world could never be the same again."
The songs, many sung in German but others in so many languages it was hard to keep track, were cleverly acted out so it was a rare ditty that did not come through, even if listeners did not know a word of the Yiddish, Polish or Greek being sung.
Had it been an opera, the audience would have been within its rights to demand subtitles, but Gergely Zoldi, who wrote the script, said polyglot performances were the rule in pre-war music halls.
"So this is a show that you can take anywhere and it will be understood as little as it is here," he joked.
Festival director Vitezy meanwhile can breathe a sigh of relief that despite the economic bad news out of Hungary, and having to downsize, tickets were sold out 90 to 95 percent.
She will have to pull another rabbit out of the hat next year, when the festival coincides with the Easter holidays.
"It's risky. Hungarians will be going out of the country, but we hope the foreigners will be coming in."
($1 = 222.8505 Hungarian forints)