Above: composer Peter Eötvös
Saturday May 9th, 2015 - An outstanding evening at The New York Philharmonic, with one of the greatest symphonies from the classical canon paired with an exciting new opera. Alan Gilbert and his players were at their finest, creating sublime Schubert and then making the strongest possible case for the Eötvös - a work which to me seems destined to find a meaningful place in the operatic repertoire.
My friend Dmitry and I heard the Unfinished at Carnegie Hall in March 2014, played by the Vienna Philharmonic under Christoph Eschenbach's baton. I was re-reading what I'd written about that performance, and recalled being somewhat disappointed Eschenbach's view of the piece, most especially of the second movement. Tonight there were no such reservations: Maestro Gilbert maintained a forward-flowing atmosphere throughout; the sheer melodic beauty of the piece was given fullest expression by The NY Philharmonic artists.
Particular savourable were the familiar theme played by the cellos - given a special glow tonight - and a perfect passage where one melody passes from Anthony McGill (clarinet) to Sherry Sylar (oboe) to Robert Langevin (flute). The entire ensemble in fact seemed to be on peak form: a half-hour of generous music-making that was deeply satisfying.
As the musicians were returning to the stage after the interval, one of the violinists was sought out by the stage manager. She went off and a few minutes later re-appeared, assuming the concertmaster's chair. I am not sure who she was nor the reason for the substitution, but it was lovely of Maestro Gilbert to embrace her during the applause at the end of the performance.
Senza Sangue ('Without Blood') is based on the concluding passages of Alessandro Baricco's novella of the same title; the story tells of a young girl whose father is murdered in a wartime raid of their home. The girl, Nina, stayed hidden as her father was shot, but was then discovered by one of the assassins. He spares her life. Many, many years later Nina - having plotted her revenge - meets the man who killed her father but allowed her to live. The opera uses the same orchestration and two-character cast as Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle, with which Senza Sangue is meant to be paired.
Senza Sangue was premiered on May 1st, 2015, by The New York Philharmonic at Cologne, Germany (photo, above, from the NY Phil website). Watch a brief trailer for this new operatic work here.
The surest sign of a new work's musical value is that, after hearing it for the first time, you want to hear it again. So much new music these days leaves me in limbo: it's mostly all well-crafted and interesting enough on first hearing. But is it something I would seek out again, or buy a recording of? With Senza Sangue, the answer is a resounding yes!
Right from the tension and sense of foreboding established in the opera's first measures, one feels that here is an ideal companion piece to Bluebeard's Castle. Mari Mezei's libretto for Senza Sangue draws directly on the Baricco novella's text, and thus the sound of the Italian words give the opera an inescapable feeling of neo-verismo. Add to this Eötvös's gift for orchestration - I was frequently put in mind of Puccini's similar skill (notably in his Fanciulla del West) - and Senza Sangue is a work that should find a warm welcome from opera-lovers.
The performance could not have been better: both Maestro Gilbert and the musicians seemed intent on presenting the music to its finest advantage. The choice of vocal soloists proved auspicious, for both Anne Sofie von Otter and Russell Braun entered fully into the drama whilst delivering vocalism that illuminated the emotional states of the two characters both thru the text and thru vocal colour.
Ms. von Otter, now in her early 60s, shows a voice that retains much of its appeal; she wisely has never forced her instrument, and tonight she continued that practice, sometimes allowing the music to cover her rather than trying to outshout it. At first the voice was a bit subdued, but within moments the familiar warmth and expressiveness came into play.
Baritone Russell Braun as Pedro Cantos was von Otter/Nina's ideal counter-part. His sound is full-lyric with a ripe, dramatic edge when needed. He sang with vividly Italianate passion and had ample power when the declamation became more emphatic.
The opera is full of wonderful vocal opportunities for both characters; perhaps the most memorable moments come in Nina's monolog which begins tellingly: "As life is incomprehensible, we pass through it with the sole desire of returning to the Hell we came from." In this extended passage, Ms. von Otter's beauty and steadiness of tone and her expert manipulation of dynamics was most impressive. Mr. Braun's narrative begins: "We should have faith in the world"; in finely modulated phrases, the baritone describes his mental state during the long years since the murder, and his sure knowledge that Nina would find him and exact revenge.
However, it turns out that Nina's plan may be less one of vengeance than of being 'saved' once again. Could the man who spared her life all those years ago be the same man in whom she could finally find peace? As the opera ends, the two aging people go off to a hotel room; we cannot know whether Nina will avenge her father's death there or find consolation in forgiveness and the embracing of the man whose pity years before had left her a life full of suffering and despair.
In attempting to justify himself, Pedro says: "We were soldiers...we believed in a better world." To this, Nina replies: "You've won the war. Does this seem like a better world?" The opera ends with a dramatic postlude as they go off together.
I will look forward to encountering Senza Sangue again; hopefully in the near future, it will be mounted as designed: sharing the bill with Bluebeard's Castle.