Uomo: lyric baritone
2 flutes ((2nd also altflute, both also piccolos)
2 oboes (2nd also English horn)
3 clarinets in A (3rd also bassclar.)
2 bassoons (2nd also contrabassoon)
2 horns in F
2 trumpets in B (2nd also Flugelhorn)
3 timpani (one player)
Senza sangue (‟Without Blood”) is Peter Eötvös’s twelfth work for the musical stage. Jointly commissioned by the organization KölnMusik and the New York Philharmonic, the opera was performed in concert on both sides of the Atlantic before its staged premiere at the Avignon Festival in May 2016.
In his previous theatrical projects, Eötvös has used texts in Russian, English, French, German, and Japanese; with the present work, he has returned to Italian for the first time since Radames (1975, rev. 1997), in which he had incorporated some elements of Verdi’s Aida.
Senza sangue is based on the eponymous novel by the award-winning Italian writer Alessandro Baricco (b. 1958), who has also been active, among other things, as a music critic. Mari Mezei’s libretto focuses on the second half of the novel, in which the two characters meet again after many years. Baricco’s novel is set in some unnamed country; the author has stressed that all events and characters are fictitious. The characters have Spanish names ‟only for the sake of their sound” and, according to Baricco, they need not imply any particular geographical location.
The opera has some striking parallels with Duke Bluebeard’s Castle by Béla Bartók. Both one-acters have only two characters in them—a man and a woman. In both cases, the female character’s family has vanished (Judith has abandoned her parents and brother; Nina’s father was killed). As a consequence, both women end up in situations where the only person they have left in the world is a murderer. The connection between the two works is clinched by the pointed exchange ‟Are you afraid?”—‟No, I’m not afraid” which, appearing shortly before the end of Eötvös’s opera, is a literal quote from Bluebeard. Only this time, it is the Woman who asks the question and the Man who replies.
What draws the Man and the Woman to one another is their shared obsession with the events of half a century ago: neither the perpetrator nor the victim can ever forget those events, and both spend their entire lives under the terrible weight of the past. But while the Woman has had a turbulent life, filled with additional traumas, we find out nothing about what has happened to the Man since the war. He has been eking out a modest life as a vendor of lottery tickets, waiting for the moment when she would show up at his kiosque.
Senza sangue is divided into seven scenes, with an orchestral introduction and epilogue. The introduction bears the title ‟Invocation to Henri Dutilleux,” in honor of the great French composer who passed away at the age of 97 shortly before Eötvös’s opera was written. The music begins, pointedly, with the interval B-D (or, to use the German note names, H-D, Dutilleux’s initials). Out of this interval grows a suspenseful prelude presaging the dramatic tensions that will soon erupt as we meet the two protagonists.
The vocal lines are mostly kept simple and follow the speech patterns of the Italian language, with the exception of the Woman’s monologue (Scene III), where she sings a long arioso melody to the most philosophical passage in the book. Much of the drama is expressed by the instruments. Eötvös uses a large orchestra, with special emphasis on the brass (including a flugelhorn) and an extensive percussion battery. It is significant that the orchestra has the last word in the opera: as the Man and the Woman disappear in their hotel room, we hear a powerful orchestral epilogue, filled with sharp accents and violent instrumental screams. All the suffering of these two people has been caused by an insane war, fuelled by an utterly unrealistic and misguided belief in building ‟a better world.” The epilogue leaves us wondering whether the wounds inflicted by that senseless struggle will ever heal.