On Music: Of Triangles and Other Groups of Three

Péter Eötvös’s Tri Sestri at the Staatsoper: A cornerstone work about paths not taken, memory and farewells

It takes only about ten notes of a lonely accordion to set the mood. All the more jarring, then, is the first line seconds later: “That music is so cheerful.”

Tri Sestri (Three Sisters), by Hungarian composer Péter Eötvös, is based on Anton Chekhov’s 1901 “reality” play of the same name. With its low mysterious atmosphere, it is full of curious ironies and haunting beauty.

Three’s company
Eötvös himself called Chekhov’s Three Sisters is “a cornerstone work.” He saw “no point in writing an opera which simply brought music to the Chekhovian stage and play,” he told journalist Rachel B. Willson in an interview two years after the premiere in 1998. “Instead, I took the inner configuration of the piece – its connections with the traditions of the number three, the triangle and the cast of three – and worked with that.”

The result is an opera in three sequences, with fragments of the original text juxtaposed in new ways from the perspective of three of its characters: two of the sisters and their brother.

“The fundamental question,” Eötvös says, “is how a person can decide between two paths, when neither is good.” For the sisters, choices between men, or for their brother, between versions of a dead end life.

Photo: (c)Staatsoper
Photo: (c)Staatsoper

The new production premiering March 6th at the Staatsoper will be directed by Yuval Sharon, from Los Angeles, whose latest project, Hopscotch, was staged in 24 stretch limos driving on Southern California freeways, with singers (and audience) in each car linked via live streaming.

“In LA, I love doing things that are so out of the box they don’t even fit in a theater,” he says. “But it’s nice coming back to the ‘confines’ of a traditional theater and trying to put new ideas into it.” While his unconventional work is supported by tradition, he hopes Vienna’s tradition can be “fueled” by his innovations. “It’s a dialog.”

Sharon sees the production as “a memory piece, full of symbols.” It’s staged on three conveyor belts moving through a room, each with a central figure who “watches their memories literally float over the stage and away.”

To each their instrument
What we remember are perceptions, “what it felt like to sit in a certain chair, the color of the room, the light coming through the window, the look in someone’s eyes,” says Sharon. “Those things have more value to us than the surrounding narrative. Such moments, lifted out of the stream of memory, become the objects that the characters obsessively return to again and again.”

Eötvös has divided the orchestra into two: an ensemble of 18 players in the pit and another 50 musicians in a stage orchestra behind the singers. In this production, the composer is conducting in front; a second conductor, Eötvös’s former assistant Jonathan Stockhammer, is on the stage. This second orchestra, says Stockhammer, “represents the subconscious or emotional aspects, a kind of ocean of feeling.” In the pit “every musician is coupled with one figure on stage. For example, the brother Andrei is the bassoon.” This smaller ensemble “represents the conscious impulses and motivations of the figures on stage. It’s very clear.”

Andrei’s wife Natasha is the outsider in the family, represented by a “vulgar and jazzy” saxophone, a character “absurd and disgusting at the same time.” The part is being sung by countertenor Eric Jurenas, a 26-year-old Julliard graduate discovered last year by Staatsoper director Dominique Meyer on a scouting mission to New York.

With dozens of performances in the 18 years since its premiere, the opera Tri Sestri has become a major contemporary work. Here Eötvös has broken through the barrier of the “European fear of expression, fear of kitsch,” says Stockhammer, creating a “charged work full of shattering emotion.”

“Péter has often described the piece as being about farewell,” explains Sharon. “But the actual act of saying good-bye is not a singular event in time. The minute you say good-bye to somebody or something – as the three sisters are doing: saying good-bye to their house and the whole way of living as a family – the
memories begin.”

In the end, “the people we say good-bye to are constantly with us.”


Opera by Péter Eötvös
Vienna State Opera
Mar 6 & 13, 18:30
Mar 10, 16, & 18, 19:00

Cynthia Peck
Cynthia Peck
Cynthia Peck is originally from Southern California, but she does not miss the sun. She lived in Tokyo for a decade, and she does miss the food. Now the Konzerthaus and Musikverein are her main living rooms, as are a few select restaurants around town. Trained in Vienna as a professional cellist, she also works at the Austrian Academy of Sciences, translates and edits lots of books about Buddhist epistemology and Austrian history, and is thinking about apprenticing as a chef. What she enjoys most is writing about music.

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