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The Magical Magyar Opera

New York
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center
05/08/2015 -  & May 9, 2015
Franz Schubert: Symphony No. 8 in B minor, D. 759, “Unfinished”
Peter Eötvös: Senza sangue (US Premiere)

Anne Sofie von Otter (Mezzo-soprano), Russell Braun (Baritone)
New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Alan Gilbert (Conductor)

P. Eötvös (© Schott Music.com)

As one of the most magical composers living today, Peter Eötvös had one erroneous supposition for his 45-minute opera, Senza sangue last night. He had said or written several times, that it could be part of a double-bill with Béla Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle. And that, in my opinion, would be, for two operas about murder, a literal case of over-kill.

Both operas employ only two singers, both have an almost similar orchestra (except for an organ in the Bartók), both have seven scenes where mysteries are unveiled, secrets are revealed, and the links of sex and violence are explored.

Even more important, both employ orchestral colors which traumatize the ears, petrify the senses and leave one gasping for mental breath.

The idea of having two Magyar operas of such startling brilliance would be like the revelation of Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita. One must return to reality lest one be paralyzed by the experience.

Of course there are differences. Bluebeard depends on a centuries-old gruesome tale based on a real murderer. Senze sangue (Without Blood) (New York Philharmonic Co-Commission, with the support of the Kravis Prize for New Music, with the Cologne Philharmonic) is based on the final part of Alessandro Baricco’s novella from 2002, though this also deals with death. First, the murder of a father, during a civil war by a group of men, then their own murders by the young daughter who survived.

Peter Eötvös has taken the final part of the novel, when the now elderly woman, faces the last of the killers. And they talk. She recognizes him, he knows that she is out to murder him, and they retire to a coffee shop to reveal their stories.

The Hungarian-born composer uses the original Italian language, and the seven scenes move quickly, dramatically, almost too dramatically. This is cinematic stuff, a scene of continuous episodes like Lulu or Wozzeck. The man and woman may speak, but we are caught up in the suddenness of the action.

She speaks innocently to him about a lottery ticket, suddenly invites him for a drink. Does he know her then? We aren’t certain–and the translation in the program badly misses the change. He is speaking about killing the father, and the translation says, “She turned her head and looked at me.” The real Italian abruptly says, “You turned your head and looked at me.”

More abrupt changes, as they both speak of murder, the murder of her father, and the murder of his colleagues.

And a certain point, I was taken aback by a most contemporary surprise. She accuses him of murdering after the war is over. He says, “We believed in a better world.” She says, “You’ve won the war. Does this seem a better world?”

And now comes the part which set me shaking with fear. She accuses him of killing for revenge. And he says to her, “You too are spurred by the desire for revenge.”

To me, this is America and the terrorists. After Nine-Eleven, we killed in Iraq and Afghanistan for revenge. Today they kill us for revenge and we drone them for revenge, and...

And back to the music, It is music which clashes, which frequently overcomes the voices. It can be as melodramatic as a Grade Z rror film (when they speak about poisoning), or blaresout fortissimo when the two speak of telling each other’s stories.

But always, this is a strong continuous music.

Béla Bartók created a different orchestral tapestry for every door which is opened, revealing each new image shown Judith by Bluebeard. Peter Eötvös doesn’t seem (at first hearing) to give such literal distinctions.

But Alan Gilbert doesn’t need that. Whatever we may think of him as a conductor, he has a special, almost genetic excitement with Hungarian opera, as we saw in Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre. Here, two, he lunged into the orchestral whirling, emblazoning color, pushing harder and harder.

A. S. von Otter/R.Braun (© Courtesy of the artists)

Nor did the two soloists disappoint. Whenever I think of Bluerbeard, I think of Christa Ludwig and Walter Berry. Anne Sofie von Otter and Raymond Braun had that same vocal relationship. They each had their monologues (especially Ms. von Otter in the Third Scene), but these two strong voices, fighting at times with the New York Philharmonic for ascendency, offered that same repressed violence.

Mr. Eötvös comes from a long line of 20th Century Hungarian composers–Bartók, Kodály, Kurtág–who eschewed the ersatz Gypsy music of Franz Liszt to produce their Magyar exotica, to forget about ordinary orchestral restrictions. And in these 45 minutes, not once did he slip, either into pathos or superfluous violence.

It was simply a masterful and unforgettable experience.

I wish so much to hear it again tonight, but alas have another concert. Hopefully Mr. Gilbert and the same soloists will record (or at least put on YouTube) this glorious glorious opera.

I’m not certain why Mr. Gilbert started the evening with Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony. But it did complete the Austro-Hungarian empire of music. He played it well, accentuated the con moto of the Andante, but gave it the tragic touch.

This is a work we all studied as children. When played well, as (alleged) adults, we only wish Schubert could have written two final movements as good. He didn’t. But after Senza sangue, all thoughts of Schubert disappeared. We were transported to the country of Peter Eötvös, experiencing a uniquely moving even confounding intensity.

Harry Rolnick



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