Eötvös, Bartók: Brothers In Opera, Without The Blood

Mezzo-soprano Anna Sofie von Otter and baritone Russell Braun flank conductor Alan Gilbert in Cologne.  (Concert photos by Chris Lee)
Mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter and baritone Russell Braun flank conductor Alan Gilbert in Cologne.
(Concert photos by Chris Lee)

By Rebecca Schmid

COLOGNE — The opening bars of Peter Eötvös’ Senza Sangue plunge the listener into a shadowy terrain somewhere between hell and earth. The male protagonist, a kiosk vendor still unidentified by name, tells a female visitor that she has chosen a lottery ticket with a “good number.” Despite the mundane situation, his voice booms threateningly, in a sound world unmistakably reminiscent of Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle.

Von Otter sang Nina in Peter Oetvos' 'Senza Sangue' as led by Gilbert.
Von Otter sang Nina in Peter Eötvös’ ‘Senza Sangue,’ led by Gilbert.

The one-act opera Senza Sangue (Without Blood), which the New York Philharmonic unveiled at the Kölner Philharmonie during the contemporary music festival “Acht Brücken” on May 1, was created to be paired with Bluebeard. The concert version of the new work will be repeated at Avery Fisher Hall for New York Philharmonic audiences on May 8 and 9.  

Eötvös himself will conduct concert performances of Senza Sangue paired with Bluebeard as intended in Gothenberg, Sweden, and Bergen, Norway,  in April 2016. The fully staged pair will be presented at Avignon, France, in May and Budapest, Hungary, in June of 2016, with Eötvös conducting. And Germany’s Hamburg State Opera will pair the works in its own production early in the 2016-17 season.

As Eötvös explained in a pre-concert talk, he had always dreamed of writing a sequel to the Bartók and finally found the source in a 2002 novella by Alessandro Baricco.

With the intent of creating a unified experience, his orchestration is identical to Bluebeard save for the omission of the pipe organ. The libretto by Mari Mezei — Eötvös’ wife and collaborator in three previous operas, including the hugely successful Angels in America, an adaptation of the eponymous play by Tony Kushner — preserves Baricco’s forceful lines but emphasizes a more abstract attempt for a man and woman to find spiritual reconciliation.

In the novella, the 62-year-old protagonist, Nina, tracks down Pedro Cantos, the last surviving murderer of her father and brother, and convinces him to join her for a drink. The other perpetrators have disappeared mysteriously, as has a count to whom she was pawned off in a poker game. But she decides to take revenge “senza sangue” (without blood), inviting him to forget their sorrows in a hotel room.

Hungarian composer Peter Eötvös. (Andrea Felvégi)
Hungarian composer Peter Eötvös. (Photo by Andrea Felvégi)

In the operatic version, Nina delivers the climactic lines from which Baricco derived his novella’s title before rather than after the seduction. Their heated confrontation inexplicably leads her to have a change of heart (in the novella, tears have begun to roll down Pedro’s face). Eötvös’ scoring is transparent and concise, with detailed textures that underpin the text.

Creeping woodwinds, brass tattoos, eerie percussion, and neo-Romantic strings build upon Bartók’s sonic realm while subsuming them increasingly into Eötvös’ own language of extended techniques and violent late modernism. But while we see the world through the eyes of Nina in the opening scene (why else would Pedro come across so clearly as a murderer?), the dramatic line loses clarity.

It would be unfair to compare Eötvös to Bartók, not only because a score cannot be judged in its entirety on first listen, but also because perhaps no opera of the 20th century tells its story with the pictorial acumen of Bluebeard’s Castle, in which the castle represents Bluebeard himself. And yet the epilogue following Pedro’s disclosure of his full name is not a satisfying conclusion.

Do the chiming tubular bells signify the passing of time? What did the man and woman do at the hotel? The score certainly does not provide the resolution of Baricco’s novella, in which Nina has, at least for a moment, found peace as she rests her forehead on Pedro’s back.

Bows for Gilbert, Eötvös, von Otter, Braun, and the Philharmonic.
Taking their bows: Gilbert, Eötvös, von Otter, Braun, and the New York Philharmonic.

Eötvös’ vocal writing was also not terribly persuasive in the hands of mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter. Despite her commanding presence and attractive tone, she did not come close to exuding the callous life experience of the character of Nina, uttering words such as “revenge” with polite grace rather than smoldering rage.

The baritone Russell Braun incarnated Pedro with more conviction, weaving through unruly melodies with seamless balance between technique and emotional expression. Not once was he seen counting complex rhythms with his body, as von Otter did on more than one occasion. He seemed to identify with the wounded but venomous Pedro while bringing mellifluous warmth to every line.

The New York Philharmonic under music director Alan Gilbert offered a polished and emotionally invested reading of the score. The orchestra was also in top form for Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Nyx, depicting the mercurial goddess of night in her many forms, from destructive storm to pint-sized fairy. The tone poem has moments of Debussy, Sibelius, and even Mahler, but speaks in a fresh, direct, and graphic style.

Rounding out the program was Bartók’s Miraculous Mandarin Suite, which, not unlike Senza Sangue, culminates in a calculated seduction. Gilbert’s rhythmic precision was on display from start to finish, and the orchestra clearly enjoyed the wild romp through swirling strings, snarky brass, and serpentine woodwinds. But a certain cool meticulousness reigned until the final stretch, in which the wealthy Mandarin is finally brought to his death — in this case, with blood.

Rebecca Schmid is a music writer based in Berlin. She contributes regularly to the Financial Times, New York Times, Gramophone, Musical America Worldwide and other publications.