Opéra Grand Avignon, 2016
Péter Eötvös, Róbert Alföldi, Nadine Duffaut, Romain Bockler, Albane Carrére, Adrienn Miksch, Károly Szemerédy
Armel Opera Festival/ARTE Concert
Based on a psychological revenge thriller by Alessandro Baricco, Péter Eötvös' short one-act opera Senza Sangue might not seem to have much in common with Bartók's Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, but the pairing of the works by the two Hungarian composers proves to be complementary. The connections and commonalities between the two works are further emphasised by the conducting of both by Péter Eötvös in this Opéra Grand Avignon production for the Armel Opera Festival.
Effectively, Eötvös has reduced Baricco's novel down to its final confrontation, bringing the intensity of what has gone before entirely into a conclusion that is short on drama but filled with tension and intriguing implications. Nina has tracked down a man she has been looking for, a 72 year old lottery ticket seller called Tito who formerly went under the name of Pedro Cantos. 52 years ago he was one of three men who killed her father and he is now the only one left alive. Nina invites the man for a coffee where she reveals that she was present when her father was killed, and she believes it was Pedro who fired the first shot.
From the conversation that takes place between the man and the woman - the dramatic action of the opera not really consisting of much more than that - we are led to believe that Nina has spent her whole life tracking down the three men, and may have been responsible for their deaths, but reduced down to the conclusion alone Senza Sangue becomes much more than a revenge story. It's about a young life that has been destroyed by war, condemned to live in hatred for the rest of one's life, shaped by this one terrible event. "Even if life has no meaning, we go through it with one desire", Nina tells the man, "To return to the hell that created us".
If there's not much in the way of drama, the accompanying music by Péter Eötvös delves much deeper into this troubled soul. The music is tonal, but dark, slow, twisting and stripped down of ornamentation. Not surprisingly, considering the subject, it reminds the listener of Strauss's Elektra, moods fluctuating and rising to the surface in surges, always with ominous undercurrents. The music doesn't just take in the woman's view however, but contrasts it with the man's perspective. There's hesitancy in its flitting, dancing, confusion but with a thread of acceptance underpinning the fear that this day would eventually come. But there's also a measure of challenge to the woman's viewpoint.
The story is evidently not as simple as it seems, and Eötvös's music and the setting probe this further. The man does not attempt to condone his killing of Nina's father, but he does make the point that it was done in a time of war. He was a soldier, he was fighting to build a better society. Vengeance runs both ways. Moreover, he was aware of the young child in the room, saw her hiding and let her live. The tone between the man and the woman gradually changes the more they discuss and come to understand each other. For all the lack of drama and the 'talky' nature of the treatment, Senza Sangue is a subject as operatic as they come, all the more intense for being played out between two people. Péter Eötvös has room to explore these characters in this situation for all the complexity and nuance of their positions and does so brilliantly in this fascinating work.
Senza Sangue is well paired here with Bartók's Duke Bluebeard's Castle. Seen together, the commonalities are obvious, both short one-act operas, both detailing a situation between a man and a woman where there is much more going on beneath the surface than the obvious, the music of both works highly attuned to the psychological or the symbolic underpinnings. Perhaps most significantly - although Senza Sangue is in the Italian language of its source novel - both works are by Hungarian composers.
Conducting his own work as well as Bartók's, Eötvös emphasises the musical connections between the works, or perhaps it might be more a case that he adapts Bluebeard to make it a little more complementary to the tone and the intent that has been established in Senza Sangue. This is not the harsh, jagged, disturbing inner-world of Bartók's dark score, but rather a more sensitive reading that likewise strives to find a neutral position between Judith's troubling inquisitiveness and Bluebeard's admonition to "look but don't question". Like the lesson in Senza Sangue, you won't always find the answers that you want, or worse, you can risk creating the hell you are trying to escape.
Directed by Róbert Alföldi (Senza Sangue) and Nadine Duffaut (Duke Bluebeard's Castle) for the Armel festival, the stage production for both works is clean, simple and neutral, reflecting the neutral position of the musical treatment of the subjects. Other than a gun being shown in the hands of the woman at the start, there is little in the way of props in Senza Sangue, the real drama taking place on an inner psychological level. It's much the same with Duke Bluebeard's Castle, with only sinister figures in the background and semi-abstract projections for each of the rooms adding to the disquieting, sinister undercurrents that come with the peeling back of the psychological layers. The imagery remains, surprisingly but appropriately for the purpose of this production, rather bloodless - senza sangue.
The singing is excellent throughout, noninflected, expressive of character without over-emphasis, allowing those ambiguities and uncertainties within the personalities and the subject to remain. Romain Bockler as Pedro in Senza Sangue was the only competition singer and held all the dramatic tension well alongside Albane Carrére's Nina. Adrienn Miksch and Károly Szemerédy took those personalities a stage further in Duke Bluebeard's Castle, the careful dance between probing and wariness leading to a fraught situation that demands a resolution, although not necessarily lead to the desired outcome.
Links: ARTE Concert, Armel Opera Festival