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Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Opera Review: Unfinished Business

Peter Eötvös' Senza Sangue bows at the Philharmonic.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
He's back: Alan Gilbert (right) and the New York Philharmonic return to Avery Fisher Hall.
Photo by Chris Lee © 2015 New York Philharmonic courtesy 21C.
On an ordinary evening in an unnamed European city, a woman stops at a news kiosk to buy a lottery ticket. This unassuming beginning is the start of Senza Sangue, the opera for two singers that had its New York premiere last Friday night at the New York Philharmonic. Unusually, this new 45-minute opera was paired with Schubert's Symphony No. 8 in B Minor, the so-called Unfinished. Alan Gilbert, looking relaxed after a month spent touring Europe with the orchestra, conducted.

The concert opened with the Schubert, a romantic and big-shouldered reading that featured some of the best playing of this orchestra under Mr. Gilbert in recent memory. The first movement emerged as a querolous and entertaining argument between the nervous, shivering first theme and the songful second subject. Indeed, it was the cello section that carried the day, bringing profundity and grace to this famous melody. Expert contributions from the orchestra's woodwinds aided matters, supported by rich, warm tones in the brass.
The following Andante is one of Schubert's great formal experiments, led off with another back-and-forth between two themes. In this case, the violins and horns. Mr. Gilbert led a measured performance, with the walking bass underneath the two instrumental choirs.

Organ-like tone from the winds and horns contributed to the contemplative atmosphere--this was the sound of the orchestra not just playing but breathing too. Mournful solos for clarinet, oboe and flute added to the pastoral atmosphere, cut off by a solemn choir of trombones as the movement boiled to its climax.

Based on the novel of the same name by Italian author Alessandro Barricio Senza Sangue might best be described as neo-verismo. It is a thriller, a post-war revenge drama with the potential to play out like Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds. The woman is a survivor of a past, unspecified war, having lived through the invasion of her home and the death of her family at the hands of a paramilitary squad when she was just a little girl. At this point in the story, she has killed almost all the surviving commandos. The man is the sole remaining squad member, and he happens to be the one who spared her from death when he found her hiding in the cellar.

From the chromatic opening of this one-act 45-minute opera, Mr. Gilbert slowly ratcheted up the tension, laying out the tone-rows and tightening the dramatic screws to push characters (and the listener) to the breaking point. Mr. Eötvös' score follows the unexpected twists and turns of the story, eventually lifting the minor-key clouds to end the work in a surprising place--but this is a thriller so we're not gonna tell you what that is. In their first New York performance of the score, the Philharmonic (who played the world premiere last month in Cologne) were taut and assured, unrolling a glittering carpet of nails and glass shards for the protagonists to act upon.

As the Woman, veteran mezzo Anne Sofie von Otter sounded clear and lucid, although the heavy orchestration sometimes threatened to engulf her slender instrument. However, she captured the fury, rage and regret that makes this a compelling drama, making the audience forget that this was a concert performance and not a full opera. Baritone Russell Braun was apt casting as the newsstand owner, bringing out painful emotions and the seemingly stolid figure's deep and malevolent inner demons.

This is the tenth opera by Mr. Eötvös, a Hungarian composer who designed this one-act drama as a companion piece to his countryman Béla Bartók's Bluebeard's Castle. (It is written for the same orchestration as the earlier opera, minus the organ part.) Senza sangue (the title means "Without Blood") is red-blooded indeed, echoing the one-act Puccini thriller Il Tabarro with its potential for violence and the expressionism of the dramas of Schoenberg and Berg. If the triumphant reception on Friday night is any indication, the full staging of this work will be before the public very soon.

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.