Peter Eotvos’s 1998 Three Sisters is a remarkably effective opera. Though I have seen plenty of new operas this year, Three Sisters was only the third on “the big stage”: Joneleit’s Metanoia in the fall, Two Boys, and now this. Throwing an opera up in a full-size theater brings with it a different set of expectations as well as a different set of difficulties, and I only had passing familiarity with Eotvos’s opera before, having listened to the recording and glanced at a synopsis. But Three Sisters, in Rosamund Gilmore’s lucid production, immediately sucks you in, providing an engaging, and often wrenching, hundred minutes.
Eötvös bases his opera off of the Chekhov play, a somewhat-meandering tale of a family who grew up in Moscow but has spent their recent years in a small, isolated town; they aspire to return to the big city, but fail. The Russian libretto, by Eötvös and Claus Henneberg, completely reorganizes Chekhov’s work into three “sequences,” each of which focuses on a member of the family: the child-like Irina, the failed professor Andrej, and the adulterous Mascha (though the play revolves around the three sisters, Eötvös chose to focus on the brother Andrej over the eldest sister Olga, who acts as the batty matriarch in the opera).
Eötvös’s big change is that each of the sequences, essentially scenes, takes place outside of time, thus eliminating any sense of chronology; we often see the same events, like the breaking of a clock, occurring multiple times in slightly different ways. The effect is of a hiccupping timeline, with the destabilization of the bourgeois household a constant, cyclical presence, rather than a gradual linear process. Characters fall in and out of love, have affairs, celebrate their birthdays, but we’re never quite sure when we are, creating an enchanting, almost fairy tale-like dizzinesss.
The uneasiness of the drama is fully supported by a wheezing, intriguing, and often gorgeous score. Eötvös opens the opera with the three sisters sing a heaving, thick trio over the haunting sound of an accordion. With two separate ensembles—a small group in the pit, with different individual instruments representing and accompanying different characters, and a full orchestra on-stage behind the action—Eötvös creates compelling spatial effects, with trembling orchestral waves and eerie clockwork rhythmic patterns. Scurrying instrumental licks and uncanny timbres echo Boulez, but with a more heightened sense of operatic tension. The vocal writing is inventive and sounds extremely difficult, especially the shrieking of a drunken doctor (boldly sung by Rouwen Hunther). Much of the work is reminiscent of Zimmermann’s Soldaten, from the fragmented narrative to one passage featuring the rhythmic clinking of dishes.
Rosamund Gilmore’s new staging is a coup, not only matching Eötvös’s vision but enhancing it—the kind of production where the scenic elements further bring out those of the music. Movement is at the heart of the production, with numerous passages where the entire cast suddenly grinds to a halt, then hiccups forward, then freezes again: a stop-start pattern which echoes Eötvös’s musical trickery. A bed hangs from the ceiling, and one of the sisters sits on it as two soldiers swing it back and forth, a witty evocation of love divided. The characters often seem like chaotic marionettes, staggering around the stage as if pulled by strings in no particular direction. The set is a dilapidated gray, with the stage orchestra under a large cupola, and various Russian tropes scattered throughout—a rocking chair on top of a wall, a violin on a stand, bowler hats everywhere.
If the smart staging and sharp music wasn’t enough, a brilliant cast sealed the deal. There wasn’t a single weak link, not an easy task given the devilish, virtuosic music. The two Staatskapelle ensembles, conducted by Julien Selmkour and Joachim Tschiedel (I can imagine that conducting simultaneously for something like Gruppen is difficult; how insane must it be to do for an entire opera?), have never sounded better. This was my first evening at the Staatsoper’s new music INFEKTION! Festival, with Henze’s Phaedra and Hosokawa’s Matsukaze coming up: I can’t imagine a better kick-off.