Péter Eötvös Senza Sangue
Love and death go hand in hand in Péter Eötvös’s one-act opera Senza sangue. Based on the novel of the same name by Alessandro Baricco, the composer wrote his work as a pair to Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle. In Bartók’s piece death is the consequence, but here it precedes events: this is what makes the work suitable for leading into Bartók’s weighty mystery play. The open-ended conclusion suggests some kind of release, and likewise, the composer has not sought extreme technical challenges. “In this opera there are no avant-garde endeavours whatsoever. I’d like my work to be performable in fifty years too,” said Péter Eötvös of the opus.
Hungarian National Philharmonic Orchestra
Conducted by Péter Eötvös
Viktória Vizin, Jordan Shanahan
About the album
Müpa Budapest production
Stage director of the performance: Csaba Káel
Recorded at Béla Bartók National Concert Hall (MÜPA Budapest) on 10 February, 2018
Recording engineer: Ádám Matz
Mixed and mastered by Ádám Matz, Péter Eötvös
Supported by the National Cultural Fund of Hungary
Music publisher: Schott Music GmbH & Co KG, Mainz
Artwork: László Huszár / Greenroom
Produced by László Gőz
Label manager: Tamás Bognár
Péter Eötvös: Senza Sangue – Opera in one act for two singers and orchestra
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SENZA SANGUE (WITHOUT BLOOD)
A woman of around 60 stands next to a kiosk, buying a lottery ticket from the vendor, who is 72. Soon it becomes clear that the lottery was just a pretext. The Man and Woman have known each other for ages: although they haven’t met for decades, they recognize each other immediately. The Woman persuades the Man to close the kiosk for the day, and go and have a coffee with her.
Various pieces of a horrifying story start to fit together: the Man, with two companions now dead, killed the Woman’s father. At the time, the Woman was a little girl, and she was an eye-witness to the violent deed. Although the Man found her in her hiding place and could have killed her, he decided to let her live.
In her monologue the Woman muses on what might have prompted her to look up the Man after so many years, and to relive her old trauma, this time “without blood”. She believes that “the one who saved us once is capable of doing it again and again”.
The Man is also unable to rid himself of the memory of those terrible events. He has watched the Woman all through her life, from afar. The Woman now tells him what he didn’t know: after the tragedy she was saved by a man called Uribe, who lost her in a game of cards to Count Torrelavid. The count took him with her, and married her when she was fourteen. Meanwhile one of the Man’s companions, Salinas, died in mysterious circumstances.
The conversation still centres on the past. As a girl, the Woman refused to speak, and was thought to be mute. She went missing for years. The Man’s other companion, El Gurre, died. There is a suspicion that the Woman was involved in the death of the two murderers. The Man knew that sooner or later the Woman would look for him too, and that he would have to confront his destiny.
They remember the moment when the Woman’s father was killed. Can this terrible act be excused on the grounds that it was wartime? That they were murdering in the hope of a better world? Is revenge necessarily the only answer to revenge?
The Man and the Woman experienced the same trauma, though from different sides. Sharing this event in the past creates a deep connection between them, and prompts the woman to suggest they go to a hotel nearby. When they tell each other their real names (Nina and Pedro), names they have kept secret all their
lives, it becomes clear that their lives are interlinked for ever.
Libretto (Italian - English - Hungarian)
A CONVERSATION WITH PÉTER EÖTVÖS ABOUT SENZA SANGUE
Where did you get the idea to write a chamber opera for two characters, which both in terms of the protagonists’ voices and the orchestral forces is linked to Bartók’s Bluebeard?
I’ve conducted Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle very often, and I’ve encountered many solutions to the programming challenge the piece poses for opera houses. Bartók’s opera lasts precisely half an evening, but it’s very difficult to find a suitable complement for it. I think the worst solution is when it’s placed alongside a comedy. I saw one performance where it was paired with Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi. Schoenberg’s Erwartung is more fortuitous a choice; in terms of character and theme it fits better with Bluebeard, but the piece puts too much of a burden on the audience. Bartók’s piece treads a wonderfully fine mid- way line that is the hallmark of the greatest works: it is able to speak to the public at large, while having inexhaustible layers of meaning, even for specialists. This led me to write a work that would complement Bartók’s opera in every way. We came across Alessandro Baricco’s wonderful novel, and my wife Mari Mezei and I fashioned the libretto together. The basis for the opera is the closing scene of the novel. From the conversation between the two protagonists the story takes shape, in other words, as the plot unfolds, we progress into the past. This compressed, reverse chronology works wonderfully on the opera stage.
The commission for the piece came from the New York Philharmonic. How did that happen?
Just when I was ruminating over the “Bluebeard problem” mentioned above, I got an enquiry from the management of the New York Philharmonic, back at the end of 2011. The orchestra has the Marie-Josée Kravis Prize, a significant contemporary music price they award to one composer, and this involves commissioning a work from the composer. In 2011 this was awarded to the splendid French composer Henri Dutilleux, who was 95 at the time, but in view of his age he passed on the commission to three composers: Anthony Chenug, Franck Krawczyk and myself. Dutilleux and I were not in close contact, but we knew each other well. When I was the musical director of the Ensemble Intercontemporain in Paris, he came to all of our concerts, and always came to the dressing room afterwards to congratulate us. He was a marvellous person, a real angel, and a great musician. He knew me as a composer from when he was in the jury for the Prince Pierre Foundation in Monaco, which that year awarded me the composer’s prize for my violin concerto Seven. So the management of the New York Philharmonic contacted me via Dutilleux, and asked whether I would write them an orchestral piece. Right then I was working on a one-act opera, and I couldn’t take on another orchestral piece, but I offered them the opera-in-progress, which similar to Bluebeard could be given in a concert performance. They immediately liked the idea. So the New York Philharmonic gave the world premiere in May 2016 in Cologne, conducted by Alan Gilbert, with Anne Sofie von Otter and Russell Braun, in a concert performance, then a couple of days later the same performance could be heard in New York.
Not counting your early chamber opera, Senza sangue is your tenth opera. How has it fared on the stage? Has it made it into the repertoire?
Not in the same way as Three Sisters or Angels in America, but in just a few years that would perhaps be a lot to expect. Interestingly, there have been roughly the same number of concert performances and staged ones. It went on stage as an opera in Avignon, Hamburg, London, and Budapest, and had concert performances in Gothenburg, Rome, Brussels, Cologne, and New York. This dual life can perhaps be traced back to the fact that Bartók’s piece also works splendidly in the concert hall: there are only two characters, the unfolding of the plot takes place inside them, the music is extremely expressive, and the piece works even without scenery or costumes. I think opera houses need a bit of time to discover how well Senza sangue works alongside Bartók’s Bluebeard.
Brahms is supposed to have said that when he wrote his first symphony, all the time at his desk he felt the spirit of Beethoven behind him. Was Bartók standing behind you when you composed this?
No. Fortunately nobody stands behind me when I’m composing. I know Bartók’s piece very well, and this knowledge protected me against that. Regardless of my using the same orchestral forces, I wanted neither to imitate him, nor to make something radically different in contrast to him. Dependency is just as great whether you slavishly imitate something, or when you compulsively distance yourself from it. My music is independent of Bartók’s: it’s neither very close to it, nor very far from it. And there’s one huge difference which helped me to keep the right distance: the two different languages.
To what extent did the Italian language determine the style of the work?
At a fundamental level. The plot suggests the atmosphere of the last turn of the century, and radiates a kind of Italian, mediterranean emotional intensity, which people readily associate with the Verismo operas, Leoncavallo and Mascagni. In terms of its emotional pitch Senza sangue is a work of Verismo, in spite of the fact that musically it is very far from, say, Cavalleria rusticana. The music of Senza sangue stirs up the emotional world that gives impetus to the Italian operas of that period. I treat the vocal parts and the orchestra in a similar manner: the vocal parts are particularly melodic (of course, in a very different manner to the operas of Verismo), and the two singers are embedded in the orchestra, which, rather than accompanying them, carries their emotions, and in a sense is a third protagonist. The same thing happens in Bartók’s work. In shaping the orchestral material, an important aspect was something I’d experienced as a conductor in opera houses: there is very little time for rehearsal with the orchestra, and partly because of that, I decided to adopt Bluebeard’s orchestral forces en bloc. Another factor in this decision was to give directors an opportunity to play the two pieces together, without an interval. But using the same forces doesn’t mean that I’ve conjured up the same colours from the orchestra as Bartók did. The fact that I used the same voices for the Woman and the Man in Senza sangue as Bluebeard and Judit enables the same two singers to take on both roles in one evening, but so far this has only happened once, when Viktória Vizin sang the Woman and Judit. This can work wonderfully, but there are also interesting possibilities in two different pairs of singers taking Bartók’s opera and mine.
Do you refer to Bluebeard musically in the opera?
There are two points at which you can detect a reference, and naturally this is intentional. In Bartók’s opera, just after Judit enters the castle, Bluebeard asks her “Are you afraid?” The two notes to which Bluebeard sings these two syllables are F sharp-G sharp. In a dramaturgically similar juncture in my opera at the end of scene one I use the same two notes, and the orchestra falls silent at that moment just as in Bartók, but there is one great difference. In my opera, it’s not the Woman who is afraid. It’s the Man. A Woman turns up who for fifty years has been looking for the men who murdered her father, she’s found and killed the others already (this is made clear in the novel, the libretto merely implies it), and at a certain point the Man is struck by panic. The Woman asks him to shut the kiosk and go off with her to have a drink, and the Man replies: “Me? I... I can’t do that.” The word “io” is sung twice on the notes F sharp - G sharp, without orchestral accompaniment.
The other specific quotation is linked to blood. In Bartók the minor second is a symbol of blood, and this appears in my work too: there is a downward run of minor seconds in my piece, as if blood were gushing over the stage. Besides this, there is one other musical connection between my piece and Bartók’s. In Scene 3, at the end of the Woman’s monologue, she sings the words “senza sangue”, without blood, and the title of the work. This is a four-note motif, A-G sharp-B-G, which appears at the very end of the piece, played forte by the trumpets, and held as a chord by the horns and woodwind. I shaped the motif so that it would be possible to move without a break to the beginning of Bartók’s opera, which starts with an F sharp-C sharp motif.
Does that mean the piece can only be played before the Bartók?
That’s right. After Bartók’s Bluebeard, nothing more can be played. That is the end of everything. At the same time, this story, Alessandro Baricco’s novel with its open ending, in which the Woman and the Man go into a hotel, dovetails beautifully into a story that begins with a Man and a Woman entering a castle. As for the beginning of my work: the first notes, B and D, are an hommage to Henri Duilleux (B is spelled H in German and Hungarian), and the introductory instrumental music is supposed to represent the fifty years during which the Woman looks for the Man, and the Man waits for the Woman to find him. This story cannot be begun in medias res. I had to create the atmosphere of fifty years of waiting, so that then someone could come in and ask the other “Are you the one?”
Why is the opera in seven scenes?
This is a reference to Bartók too, to the seven doors, but of course the structure is not the same. In the first two scenes they are feeling their way: they meet, and they go for a coffee. In scene three the Woman is left alone while the Man goes for a drink, and in this monologue she thinks aloud, and soliloquizes. “No matter how incomprehensible life is, we cross it with only the sole yearning to return to the hell that spawned us,” she says. This is what the whole piece is about. They have waited fifty years for this moment. The dramaturgy of scenes four and five is like a set of balance scales: the justifications of the Man and the Woman pull against each other. The Man’s justification is that he and his companions were soldiers, it was wartime, and they were fighting for a better world. The Woman’s justification is more nuanced than this; she is a more complex figure than the Man. Though younger than the Man, she has experienced far more, and her life has been packed full of events. She has survived two encouters with death, first when she wasn’t shot, and second, when they set fire to her house and she escaped. The Man is a simple person, swept by war into committing a crime, but one positive aspect of his personality is that it was he who allowed the girl to live. This peace-loving nature is shown by the fact he became a lottery ticket vendor, rather than a military officer. The Woman’s personality is one of rich imagination and manifold life experience. It is she who moves the plot forward, and she is the one on whom the happy end depends: forgiveness. In the original novel the conclusion is even more beautiful: they lie on the bed in the hotel, the Woman takes up the embryo position in which she was discovered fifty years ago by the Man. This doesn’t work on the opera stage, and my concept was for the story not to conclude, but to continue into the story of Bluebeard’s Castle. But forgiveness, without letting of blood, not using violence to solve our problems, but overcoming our grievances, with a humane heart: this is extremely important to me.
Neither the orchestral nor the vocal parts make extreme demands on the performers. How conscious was that decision on your part?
Completely so. There are many composers today, both old and young, who try at all costs to compose in as individual and unusual a style as possible for both the voice and the orchestra. In this opera there are no avant-garde endeavours whatsoever. I’d like my work to be performable in fifty years too, and that doesn’t depend on how “modern” the music is that I write. The nature of opera is that only one thing counts: whether the audience can sympathize with the plot, and whether the text and the music work together on the stage.
Translated by Richard Robinson
Péter Eötvös is a highly influential figure of the Hungarian and international contemporary music scene. Eötvös was born in 1944 and started composing music as early as the age of 5. He grew up in Budapest, but at the age of 22, he went on to continue his studies in Cologne, Germany, where he studied composition under the tutelage of B. A. Zimmermann and had the opportunity to work with Karlheinz Stockhausen. From 1978, as the musical director of the Ensemble Intercontemporain for over a decade, he had the chance to personally collaborate with the most significant living composers of the time.
His twelve operas, larger- and smaller scale symphonic compositions and chamber music pieces are regularly staged in the world’s greatest concert halls, festivals and opera houses.
In recent years, he has been commissioned to write orchestral pieces for the Concertgebouw, the Elbphilharmonie, the New York Philharmonic, the Berlin Philharmonic, the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestras and many others. His operas were commissioned by the most prestigious houses, such as the Opera de Lyon, Chatelet Paris, Bavarian State Opera, Glyndebourne Festival Opera, Opera Frankfurt, and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. Not only do the topics of his operas reflect on today’s world, but he also often uses contemporary source texts as librettos. Senza Sangue is based on Alessandro Baricco’s novel of the same title published in 2002. It was jointly commissioned by the organization KölnMusik and the New York Philharmonic in 2014. Currently, he is working on two operas commissioned by the Berlin State Opera and the Hungarian State Opera House.
Passion is guaranteed when it comes to Viktória Vizin, the internationally acclaimed mezzo-soprano whose name is often seen in the world’s most prestigious houses such as the Metropolitan Opera, the Hungarian State Opera House, the Chicago Lyric or the Royal Opera House Covent Garden.
Ms. Vizin has embarked on an exciting dramatic mezzo-soprano repertory. She has passion for contemporary performing arts. She debuted as the Woman in Senza Sangue written and conducted by the composer, Péter Eötvös in which she had an outstanding success in 2018, Budapest. She was also invited by the Brussels Philharmonic Orchestra to sing the same role in Brussels and in Bruges in 2019, where she performed Judit in Bluebeard’s Castle, too, in the same concert.
In addition to her new repertory, she completed her 100th Carmen performance (2012) at the Budapest State Opera House. She lives in Chicago, she is a professor at the DePaul University and she is continuously seen participating in Chicago area concert events, and also in her home country, in Hungary, as well.
Hawaiian baritone Jordan Shanahan made his professional opera debut in 2002. Since than he has performed over 70 leading roles with some of the world’s leading theaters including the Metropolitan Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, the Netherlands Opera, the Bavarian State Opera and many others. In addition to the standard repertoire, Jordan has already made a name for himself with the contemporary repertoire: modern masterpieces being written by the leading composers of our own time such as John Adams, George Benjamin, Jake Heggie and Péter Eötvös.
In 2018 he was engaged as the Man in Senza sangue in Budapest, then he sang the same role in 2018 in Brussels and Bruges, in performances conducted by the composer, Péter Eötvös himself. The CD was recorded live by Müpa Budapest in 2018.
Jordan Shanahan now lives in Switzerland and performs regularly in Europe, North America, Asia, and of course Hawaii.