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Péter EÖTVÖS (b 1943)
Senza Sangue (Without Blood), opera in one act after the novella by Alessandro Baricco to a libretto by Mari Mezei (2015)
Viktória Vizin (mezzo-soprano) – The Woman
Jordan Shanahan (baritone) – The Man
Hungarian National Philharmonic Orchestra/Péter Eötvös
rec. February 2018, Béla Bartók National Concert Hall, Budapest, Hungary
Full libretto and translations included in the booklet
BMC CD278 [45:44]

The moment I saw the title and performing forces listed for this disc I had a feeling that the single work it contains might have something to do with another one act opera by another Hungarian. Indeed Eötvös conceived Senza Sangue as a potential solution to the century old conundrum of finding an appropriate work to complement Bartók's Duke Bluebeard’s Castle as one half of a double-header. As the composer reminds us in the revealing booklet interview, he’s conducted Bluebeard on several occasions and the repertoire isn’t exactly brimming with credible match-ups. He alludes to attempts to pair it with Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi (too comic) and Schoenberg’s Erwartung (a better bet in spirit, but too uncompromising for most audiences). He was already working on Senza Sangue in late 2011 when a call came from the New York Philharmonic; they had just awarded the prestigious biennial Marie-Josée Kravis Prize for New Music to Henri Dutilleux who understandably, at the age of 95 deemed himself too venerable to fulfil the orchestral commission that formed part of the award. The French master referred them to Eötvös; could he step in? He mentioned the opera upon which he was working and the practical rationale behind it. This was approved and in 2016 Alan Gilbert conducted the NYPO in the Cologne premiere, with the vocal duties shared between Anne Sofie von Otter and Russell Braun.

Mirroring Bluebeard’s seven doors, Senza Sangue comprises seven scenes. The libretto is an adaptation by Eötvös’s wife Mari Mezei (she has retained the original Italian) of part of a story by Alessandro Baricco. The events described move backwards in time (as they are addressed by the two characters, at least). There is far more nuance, implication and important detail, but in a nutshell the plot is as follows: an unnamed 60 year old woman purchases a lottery ticket from a 72 year old vendor. The ticket was a pretext – they have known each other for many moons but haven’t met in decades. She insists they go for a coffee together – over the course of their conversation (which constitutes the entire ‘action’ of the piece) it emerges that the woman witnessed the man murder her beloved father during an unspecified war when she was just a child, although he spared her. Having been rescued, as time passed she was subjected to a sequence of traumatising events and as the opera proceeds it seems clear that one way or another the pair were destined to encounter each other once more and face up to these desperate events, experiences common to each character but perceived from opposite perspectives; perhaps somehow they will even be able to accommodate them and move on….

This ambiguous denouement means that Senza Sangue could only be placed first in the mooted double-bill, as the conclusion of Bluebeard is, as Eötvös states “…the end of everything. At the same time, this story…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.”

Not unlike its revered predecessor therefore, Senza Sangue is a work which should work very well on CD; after all it revolves entirely around a conversation between two people and any audience, with a libretto and a translation in front of them, can visualise the ‘actions’ described in their heads. Each scene pushes the recollections of (and the impacts of the events upon) the protagonists a little further back. The third scene is a monologue in which the Woman attempts to rationalise her reasons for finding the Man again; is she seeking some kind of catharsis or closure?. In scene 6, toward the end of the piece, it is revealed that the original murder took place against a background of war, at least in its aftermath; is this sufficient to justify it? Like Bluebeard then, the new work is an opera for and about the mind; the psychological states and motivations of each character exude dramatic potential in themselves and are utterly compelling in their ambiguity – I suspect repetition and familiarity is likely to yield many possible competing, even contradictory responses among listeners.

The conciseness of Senza Sangue is profoundly impressive. Its vocal lines eschew empty virtuosity and seem to be designed to be as comfortable as possible for the singers. In fact Eötvös’s writing for voices and instruments seems especially lyrical and accessible in this work, particularly when one considers its often harrowing subject matter. Viktória Vizin and Jordan Shanahan are therefore able to focus their energies more effectively on the intense dramatic demands of the text; both emerge as entirely convincing, empathic actors. Whilst it is most ungallant to speculate on their respective ages, a cursory search through Google Images suggests that neither Vizin nor Shanahan are even close to the ages of their characters, yet both completely inhabit their roles. Vizin’s portrayal of the Woman precisely conveys the emotional ambiguity of a damaged individual permanently touched by an unimaginably horrific childhood event, albeit a character made stoical and almost indifferent by the ravages of her subsequent experience. Shanahan on the other hand projects the world weariness of his even older character equally rivetingly and even sympathetically; a Man brutally conditioned by the inevitability of fate to expect the worse. With his every phrase the listener is left in little doubt that the end, whatever it may involve, cannot come quickly enough. In any two-hander there are few if any hiding places for the singers – that is especially true of Senza Sangue.
The ongoing internal drama is fine-tuned and magnified by Eötvös’s sublime and singular orchestration. There are myriad examples in the opera of the orchestra subtly but unerringly mirroring mood and memory, and the composer harnesses his large band with impeccable taste. For a story which evokes extremes of anxiety but which funnels down to a narrow range of possible outcomes for either protagonist, the scoring relies heavily on texture and colour and Eötvös is a master in this regard. On more than one occasion very low pitches mesh with stratosphrerically high strings to create the impression of infinite space; Eötvös fills this with attractively spooky threads of melody which seem simultaneously benign and claustrophobic. One wouldn’t expect it to be ‘pretty’ but it is nevertheless consistently alluring. A large percussion section is deployed expertly and sparingly. A couple of listens will be sufficient to convince most Bartokians that Senza Sangue represents an ideal bedfellow for Bluebeard

Listeners will be left in little doubt that this is a live recording. There’s a bit of coughing in the first couple of minutes and whilst the audience settle soon afterwards, there is intermittent low level stage noise throughout. But that’s an observation, designed to let those readers expecting a clean-cut studio recording know what to expect. In any case these noises off genuinely have no impact on one’s enjoyment of this mesmerising, consuming mini-masterpiece – indeed the BMC engineers have done a superb job with the sonics which are vibrant, precise and warm. The inclusion of a synopsis together with the complete libretto and translations complete a handsome package. Listeners need not worry themselves about the relatively brief playing time of this disc – couplings in this case are both unnecessary and undesirable.

Richard Hanlon

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