Since its world premiere at the Opéra de Lyon, France, in March 1998, Peter Eötvös' Three Sisters has received instant recognition, with several new productions scheduled in Germany, Holland and Hungary for the season 1999/2000, and more to come later. No wonder Deutsche Grammophon decided to publish this astonishing lyrical masterpiece in its "20/21" collection. Former co-conductor, along with Pierre Boulez, of the Ensemble Intercontemporain in Paris, the Hungarian Peter Eötvös is hardly a newcomer on the contemporary scene; but the tremendous dramatic and musical impact of Three Sisters has taken everyone by surprise. Part of the success may be explained by the story, based on Anton Chekov's eponymous play. Peter Eötvös and his librettist Claus H. Henneberg have considerably changed the original: the action is concentrated in a single section instead of four acts. But the true originality of the libretto (sung in Russian) is that the story is presented three times in as many sections, adopting each time the point of view of a different character: first Irina, then Andrei, and finally Macha. This re-composition, or de-construction, of the original plot allows Eötvös to dig deeper into the characters' souls, expectations and inner life, while the return of the same scenes, shown slightly differently each time, translates with amazing force the painful passing by of time in a world of deceived ambitions, where life flees and nothing ever really changes.
To match musically this universe of solitary souls, the Hungarian composer displays a stunning array of sonorities, from the lonely opening accordion melody, to intensely dramatic, spectacular clusters, through rarefied sound-clouds of the utmost refinement. Two orchestras respond to each other, one made of 16 soloists in the pit, the other, in full formation, set backstage. In this world premiere, all the feminine characters are sung by countertenors! This is by no means a choice imposed by the composer (other productions opt for sopranos instead); but the alchemy between ambiguous vocal timbres and the expressionist use of instruments contributes to create a haunting, hallucinated atmosphere of mystery, and ultimate fascination. The music itself pays tribute to Berg (painful melancholy mixed with "popular" material), Ligeti (ferocious irony surrounding Dr. Chebutykin), perhaps even early Bartók (mysterious suspended harmony), but retains its fundamental originality all along.
Conducted by Kent Nagano (soloists ensemble) and the composer himself (backstage orchestra), the Orchestre de l'Opéra de Lyon plays with superb concentration and exemplary commitment, while the vocal distribution appears absolutely flawless. If Albert Schagidullin (Andrei) and Dietrich Henschel (Baron Turzenbach) are particularly impressive in their characterizations, all of the singers participate equally in the success of the production. Though not exempt from stage noises, the live recording provided by Radio-France's engineers has presence, dynamism and clarity. As a fill-up, Peter Eötvös reads a well-done 8-minute listening guide (with music excerpts) in English, German and French. Who said opera is dead? (Luca Sabbatini)