Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Thursday, 12 December 2019

EÖTVÖS Tri sestry Dennis Russell Davies Frankfurt Opera

EÖTVÖS Tri sestry Dennis Russell Davies, Nikolai Petersen, cond; Dmitry Egorov (Ogla); David DQ Lee (Mascha); Ray Chenez (Irina); Eric Jurenas (Natascha); Krešimir Stražanac (Tusenbach); Iain MacNeil (Werschinin); Thomas Faulkner (Kulygin); Barnaby Rea (Soljony); Mark Milhofer (Doctor); Mikołaj Trąbka (Andrei); Michael McCown (Fedotik); Isaac Lee (Rodé); Alfred Reiter (Anfisa)
Oper Frankfurt, Chor der Oper Frankfurt
OEHMS 986 (2 CDs: 103:36) Live: Frankfurt 9–10/2018

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This recording is the latest in a hugely ambitious collaboration between the Oehms label and Frankfurt Opera. Given the stultifyingly conservative repertoire of most opera companies, and of record labels when it comes to opera, it is astonishing to flick through the “also available” section at the back of the liner here and find operas by Reimann, Glanert, Franco Leoni, Korngold, Antonio Cesti, and Flotow. Tri sestry (Three Sisters, based on the Chekov), by Peter Eötvös, is as ambitious and unusual as anything on that list, although it has received several stagings in Europe since its premiere, in Lyon in 1998. The work is dramatically complex, and you get an impression of its theatrical scope from this audio recording, but musically, the work is rich and varied, and very much worth hearing, even without the visuals.
Eötvös and co-librettist Claus H. Henneberg take considerable liberties with Chekov’s text. The original five acts are compressed to three “Sequences,” and the original chronology is abandoned, the events redistributed, and even occurring multiple times (the fire in the town, for example, occurs in both the First and Second Sequences). The liner essay, by Francis Hüsers, argues that the original play lacks a sense of plot anyway, and that the cyclical approach to narrative time imposed by Henneberg and Eötvös is equally valid. Remarkably, the resulting structure can be paraphrased in a brief synopsis, given in the liner, which, although disjointed, seems broadly logical. The librettists worked with German translations, and their work was then translated back to Russian, the language in which the opera is sung. It is a shame, then, that no libretto is included, although even with one, a listener could only hope for a broad outline of the drama.
Two ensembles are employed, a stage orchestra, which is positioned behind a gauze backstage, and a pit orchestra, hence the two conductors credited. The distinction between them is not apparent in the audio, and the generally intimate scale of the music belies the presence of two full-sized ensembles. The liner is generously illustrated with stills from the Frankfurt production, which show a 1950s setting, in one scene a house  interior, and in another a playground.
The composer seems at pains to make everything here strange and unsettling, and one very effective device to this end is casting the three sisters as countertenors, all cross-dressed as 1950s housewives here. In fact, the whole cast is male, with the two other female characters, Natasha and Anfisa, also sung by men. But the variety and invention of Eötvös’s vocal writing ensures that there is never any risk of monotony.
As a purely aural experience, Tri sestry is beguiling but never intimidating. At the start, we hear the aspirated tones of an accordion, a typical sonority in the accompaniments that follow. A diverse percussion section is employed, creating a soundscape of dry, hollow tones, from untuned metallic instruments such as cowbell. Violin glissandos are another regular feature, and Eötvös structures the Sequences through large-scale musical progressions, but made up of very simple devices—such as continuous upward glissandos in the strings. Loud climaxes are rare, but are disjointed affairs, the instrumental groupings—presumably the two orchestras—seemingly oblivious to each other. But for the most part, the musical fabric is made up of sophisticated vocal lines with modest, if colourful accompaniments. There is much melodrama, speaking over instrumental accompaniment, and the clear diction of the singers, none of whom are Russian, means that even a modest grasp of the language can help you find your bearings.
The performance and recording are excellent. Given the complex interplay of drama and music in this work, recording from a live staging is clearly a benefit. Frankfurt Opera have their own in-house recording team, who use radio microphones to ensure that singers are never recorded from a distance. That makes the recording of the voices clear and present, although it creates another barrier for listeners trying to get a grasp of the staging. This is actually the second commercial recording of the opera. A recording from the first production, in Lyon, was released on DG (20/21 459 694-2) and is now available on the Budapest Music Centre label. That version was well received, and the presence of Eötvös himself as one of the conductors adds authority. But either version would seem to be recommendable. Whatever its theatrical ambitions, this is an opera that works as an audio experience, and, as such, offers a valuable insight into the composer’s musical world.

This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 43:4.

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