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CD Review

Péter Eötvös

Three Sisters
(Drei Schwestern)

  • Alain Aubin, Olga
  • Vyatcheslav Kagan-Paley, Masha
  • Oleg Riabets, Irina
  • Gary Boyce, Natasha
  • Albert Schagidullin, Andréi
Orchestre de l'Opéra de Lyon/Kent Nagano & Péter Eötvös
Deutsche Grammophon 459694-2 DDD 2CDs 43:29, 78:15
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"That music is so cheerful," sing Olga, Masha, and Irina right at the start of this opera. The dirge-like sounds coming out of the orchestra are anything but cheerful, however, and this is just the first of many ironies to be found in Three Sisters, which is based on Chekhov's play. DG's recording, the third opera in their 20/21 series, comes from the world première on March 13, 1998.

When I read The Cherry Orchard in high school, I couldn't get over my initial impression that Chekhov was pulling my leg (a feeling I still get from the novels of Henry James). If one complains that much of Chekhov is banal, then surely one is missing the point! Eötvös's opera makes a similar virtue out of conversational trivialities. However, the Hungarian composer goes even farther than Chekhov in creating a state of thoughtful exasperation in the audience. He does this, in part, by giving all of the play's female roles to men. The three sisters are countertenors, for example, and a deep bass sings Anfisa, the ancient nanny and serving-women in their household. Then Eötvös (with his co-librettist Claus H. Henneberg) has done away with Chekhov's four-act structure and replaced it with three "sequences." The sequences are named after Irina, brother Andréi, and Masha, respectively. Events that were seen in one sequence may reappear in a second sequence from a different point of view – a Rashomon -like effect that is nearly impossible to follow or appreciate unless one has read at least a synopsis of the original play and of the opera. I am sure that the French audience was non-plussed on opening night. Here, the opera is sung is Russian. Later productions will translate it into German and Hungarian. (Eötvös cited a "mental block" as having kept him from composing the opera in his native language.

In brief, the plot of both the opera and the play concerns three sisters of the Prozorov family (Olga, Masha, and Irina) and the existential conflicts they face because of provincial life and the vicissitudes of love. One of Irina's suitors shoots the other dead in a duel. Masha nearly cuckolds her bourgeois husband with the town's new battery commander, but he leaves before anything can happen. The sister-in-law, a screaming harpy who is having an affair with Andréi's superior, further destabilizes the fragile household. Three Sisters is not at all linear. Instead, it is a series of episodes constructed so as to suck hope out of the characters, their rosy platitudes notwithstanding.

Why the all-male cast? The composer may have been less interested in irony than in emphasizing "the timelessness of the conception," but he also was alluding to Baroque opera and Japanese kabuki, which also dispensed with women. (Incidentally, Japanese director Ushio Amagatsu oversaw the production, and the spare set design evokes Zen Buddhism.) It is worth noting, however, that at least two later productions will use women in the title roles.

What does it sound like? Five minutes into the opera you might say, "I don't know if I can take this," but ten minutes later, you're hooked. The vocal writing ranges between straightforward singing, Sprechstimme, and speech, depending on the dramatic role that the music must play. There is lyricism at the core, and in this, Three Sisters is not so different from Wozzeck or Lulu, although Eötvös is much more ironic than Berg. His experience in electronic music studios has given him a fine appreciation for how communicative new but simple timbres can be. It is not surprising, then, that some of the most striking music in the opera comes out of the orchestra pit (or should I say "pits" – the composer places a 50-piece orchestra backstage, while an 18-piece chamber orchestra plays in the traditional location). For a sinister example, try the music that accompanies Natasha, Andréi's predatory wife, as she paces the stage during the fire scene. The vocal writing is consistently interesting, though. Natasha's vocal line reflects her vulgarity; it is full of whoops and mannerisms, like a cabaret act gone mad. The sisters sing in contrasted styles – and Irina's spoken lines are unforgettable – and other personality traits are evoked in Eötvös's musical shorthand. Other admirable features include Andréi's bitter arioso indicting provincial life and an ensemble in the second sequence in which several commonplace conversations seamlessly interweave to nightmarish effect. Preparing the latter alone must have been frightening for Nagano and the composer.

The singers come from a variety of backgrounds; many have worked in Early Music and in the Baroque repertoire. While there are no famous names in the cast list, there are no weak links either, and everybody pulls together to deliver impressive performances. Having said that, I must mention Gary Boyce's outrageous Natasha, and (again) the simple beauty of Oleg Riabets's speaking voice for Irina. I assume that the performance is definitive. It had better be, because this isn't an opera that's likely to be recorded again soon, if at all. The only weak point in the engineering is the lack of distinction between the chamber orchestra in the pit and the larger orchestra in the back.

The disc ends with the composer's spoken "listener's guide" to the opera in English, German, then French. This accounts for one-third of the second disc's playing time. It's not spontaneous or even very useful, but it's there for those who like such things. The booklet is very good. It contains essays about the opera, synopses, biographies, and a four-language libretto with transliterated Russian.

Copyright © 2000, Raymond Tuttle