It was in 1844, at the crest of the reform era, that Ferenc Erkel composed his patriotic opera focussing on one of the most turbulent periods in Hungarian history: the days after the victory over the Turks at Belgrade in 1456. The hero of this work set during the era of the Hunyadis, however, is neither the famous "Turk beater" János Hunyadi nor his younger son King Mátyás, but the older son László, who was treacherously sent to the scaffold while still a young knight. Contemporary viewers received the work enthusiastically, since its scarcely disguised implications reflected the political relationships of their own era; naturally its impact also comes from the music, which was based on Italian and French models, along with with "Verbunkos" traditions.
The first Hungarian-language opera to remain an honoured part of the repertoire without interruption since its premiere, it appeared in a new production at the Hungarian State Opera in 2012.
Act I (The death of Cillei)
Nándorfehérvár (Belgrade) Castle, 1456. Mátyás Hunyadi assembles with his family's supporters in the legendary castle of the Hunyadis, where only a few months earlier János Hunyadi had beaten back an overwhelming Turkish force, thus saving Europe from the Ottoman threat for the next seventy years.
László Hunyadi daydreams about Mária Gara, his betrothed. Rozgonyi warns him of the danger to his life. Cillei arrives, and László Hunyadi confronts him over his murderous plot, prompting Cillei to draw a dagger. László's men, however, jump out from their hiding places and kill the regent. The murder fills the king with terror, and while he does not dare to openly oppose the Hunyadis, he privately plans revenge.
Act II (The king's oath)
On the Hunyadis' Temesvár (Timi?oara) estate, Erzsébet Szilágyi dreads that Cillei's murder will mean death for her sons. Her increasingly raving vision of the future predicts the tragic events to come.
When the king comes to visit, Erzsébet begs him to treat the Hunyadi boys benevolently.
The king feigns friendship. Meanwhile, the king has fallen in love with Mária Gara, which does not escape the notice of her father, the intriguing and power-hungry palatine, Miklós Gara. Erzsébet has only a few minutes to enjoy her sons' presence without worry. The king has summoned them and made a peace offering. Gara plays the contradictory situation to his own ends, fulfilling his political ambitions. The king publicly swears that he will not seek revenge for Cillei's murder.
Act III (Intrigues and execution)
Buda, 1457. The king daydreams about Mária. Gara takes advantage of this, promising the king his daughter's hand, and also lies that the Hunyadis intend to assassinate him at the wedding. The terrified king leaves László's fate to Gara.
Palatine Gara and the king's troops disrupt the wedding of László Hunyadi and Mária Gara and throw László into a dungeon.
Imprisoned, László Hunyadi awaits the legal resolution of his case in light of the king's oath. Mária steals inside in order to help him escape, but László, trusting the king's word, dismisses the idea. Palatine Gara arrives at the same time and, tearing the lovers apart and without any discussion, has László taken to the scaffold.
On Buda's Saint George Square, preparations for the execution are underway. Hoping to save her son, Erzésbet Szilágyi attempts to approach the king, but to no avail. Instead, broken by anguish, she is forced to watch as the headsman hits Laszló's neck three times before landing, at Gara's command, a fourth, lethal blow.