Eötvös’ Three Sisters in Frankfurt

Tri Sestry (Three Sisters), based on Chekhov’s play, is Peter Eötvös’ first and, hitherto, most successful opera. My appetite for experiencing the current performance at the Frankfurt Oper was whetted by a recent visit to Pforzheim for his Goldene Drache (see http://bit.ly/2MUAMku).  Among contemporary composers, Eötvös’ musical style is appealing. Individuals and dramatic ideas – here, for example, the dream of going to Moscow – are characterised by particular instrumentation and/or thematic material, almost as leitmotifs. The idiom while clearly “modern” is not inaccessible, nor unattractive or particularly difficult for singers. There is, indeed, a certain rightness to the music for Chekhov’s world: dark chords for the gloomy, isolated existence led by the sisters in the provincial town far from Moscow; lyrical sometimes swooping phrases for their yearning for a better life; short, expiring phrases for inadequate husband and suitors; quirky intervals and rhythmic patterns for the zany, uncultivated and disorderly males who seek their society.

So far, so good. Yet the Frankfurt performance failed to engage me emotionally, all the more surprising as Eötvös’ operatic adaptation (libretto co-written with Claus Henneberg) is faithful to the Chekhov original which is one of my favourite plays. What was the problem? One obvious possibility is the decision to employ male singers for all the female roles, the sisters being sung by counter tenors. I assume the aim was to prevent the appreciation of their fate from becoming too gender-specific. A not unlaudable object but, to empathize, the spectator-listener, particularly in a Chekhovian world, must relate to the reality of the characterisation. In the case of Masha and Olga, admirably sung and portrayed by David DQ Lee and Dmitry Egorov respectively, this was possible. But the Irina (Ray Chavez), who in an ungainly fashion strutted around the stage, was so far removed from one’s image of a young woman whose romantic yearnings slowly evaporate that disbelief could not be suspended.

During the evening, I asked myself whether an abstract setting, perhaps even a concert performance, would not be the best way of fulfilling the composer’s conception. Yet Dorothea Kirschbaum’s production went in the opposite direction, towards realism. Almost all the action took place in a contemporary room, containing a kitchenette and an array of tables, chairs and bookshelves (designer Ashley Martin-Davis). But the clumsy movement and awkward placing of the characters did little to underpin the dramatic content and if I did relate to what was going on it was, as I later realised, because I was transmitting to the Frankfurt stage my previous theatre experiences of the Three Sisters. Surely a condemnation in itself.

There were, of course, some very positive aspects to the performance. All of the singers were vocally assured and, in some cases, more than this. The principal orchestra in the pit was in the capable hands of veteran conductor Dennis Russell Davies while behind the stage Nikolai Petersen was in charge of a second, chamber orchestra. All this typical of what one expects at the Frankfurt Opera, recently and justifiably nominated Opera House of the Year by the German magazine Opernwelt. However, I left the theatre with the suspicion that justice had not been done to Peter Eötvös in what many regard as one of the landmarks examples of contemporary opera. I must try to see it again.