Bánk bán (The Viceroy Bánk) is the most important piece both in Hungarian drama literature and opera history. A story about the oppression of the tormented Hungarian people is told with obsessive sincerity by József Katona, and by Ferenc Erkel’s moving, passionate music. A Hungarian lord’s professional and private lives are both influenced by the uncontrolled reign of foreigners. He must take action. But is one man enough to bring justice to people, and will the tragedy of an innocent family change the fate of Hungarians?
Setting: Visegrád and the banks of the River Tisza in the early 13th century
While King Endre is off at war, Queen Gertrud is holding a ball for her Meranian retainers. There, Melinda, the wife of Bánk bán, attracts the eye of the queen's nephew, Otto. Also present at the festivities are “restive” Hungarian noblemen led by Petur bán, who denounces their servile Hungarian compatriots. After the malcontents warn him to be careful, Peter answers with a bitter drinking song and then tells his companions that he is plotting a conspiracy against the queen and her foreign courtiers, and he would like to convince Bánk bán to lead it. When Melinda flees into the ballroom to escape Otto's advances, the company splits into two factions, with the Hungarians taking Melinda's side against the queen's Meranians.
Melinda flees into the courtyard of the palace, pursued by Otto. His hounding of her, however, proves useless when Melinda departs in disgust. Otto also leaves. Bánk, having returned in secret, listens to this scene with growing resentment. The knight-errant Biberach provides Otto with a solution for his burning lust: a narcotic draught to give Melinda.
Gertrud bids her guests farewell. Otto watches with satisfaction as Melinda drinks down the drugged drink. Melinda then calls the queen to account for Otto's conduct, but Gertrud rebukes her in reply. Otto's potion begins to take effect, making Melinda imagine that Bánk is standing there among the others. She staggers out of the room, and Otto follows her. The queen prevents Petur and the other malcontents from rushing to Melinda's aid.
The troubled Bánk reflects on his sad fate and that of his country. Tiborc, an old peasant, approaches the great lord to inform him of the terrible suffering being inflicted on the people. Tiborc's forehead bears a scar from an old battle in which he saved Bánk's life. Bánk promises his rescuer that he will fight for justice for the people.
Biberach brings Bánk the news that Ottó has dishonoured Melinda, who then herself appears. The hapless woman is driven to madness by shame and Bánk's bitter curse. The shocked Bánk asks Tiborc to accompany his wife and their child to his castle beside the river Tisza.
That night, Bánk bán surprises Gertrud in her chambers and calls her to account for what she has done to Melinda and the country. Unmoved, the queen calls for help. Otto races to his sister's side, but the sight of Bánk sets him fleeing. As Bánk curses her, Gertrud draws a dagger. The bán wrests the weapon from the queen's hand and kills her.
A storm overtakes Tiborc, Melinda and her child on the banks of the Tisza. Tiborc urges for them to cross, but Melinda is no longer aware of the world around her. Her own tragedy returns to her in a series of deranged hallucinations. She sings a lullaby to her little son and casts herself into the raging river with the boy in her arms.
After returning home at the news of Gertrud's death, the king mourns his wife in the hall of the castle. His retainers capture and disarm the malcontents, but before they can bring them to reckoning, Bánk appears and confesses to killing the queen. The plaintive sound of pipes is heard from the distance, and then Tiborc and a few peasants bear the shrouded corpses of Melinda and her son into the hall of the royal palace. Bánk collapses, saying, “Your majesty, you are avenged!”