Eotvos: Three Sisters

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Eotvos
LABELS: DG Ô20/21′
WORKS: Three Sisters
PERFORMER: Vyatcheslav Kagan-Paley, Alain Aubin, Oleg Riabets, Gary Boyce; Lyon Opera Orchestra/Kent Nagano, Peter Eötvös
CATALOGUE NO: 459 694-2
The Hungarian-born Peter Eötvös (b1944) is best known in Britain as a conductor – a protégé of Boulez, he was principal guest conductor of the BBC SO during the Eighties – and his achievements as a composer have only occasionally been heard here.

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His first opera, based on Chekhov’s The Three Sisters and premiered in Lyon in 1998 (this scrupulously sung and played recording is taken from those performances), is easily his biggest work to date; already there’s another stage work in the pipeline, to be based upon Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America and due at Glyndebourne in five years’ time.

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Few composers have attempted to make operas out of Chekhov – the texts are richly patterned, the characterisations and their interplay so subtle – and Eötvös’s version (sung in Russian) eliminates some of the minor characters and abandons the narrative continuity of the play. Instead the opera runs the tape of the action three times from different points of view: the audience sees what happens from the perspective of two of the sisters, Irina and Masha, and their brother, Andrei, so that crucial events recur with different spins and motivations. Yet the action remains clear; characters are identified by particular instrumental colours – Eötvös draws a huge range of sonority from a chamber orchestra in which an accordion plays a prominent role – and the word-setting ranges from speech right through to high-flown lyricism. It’s intelligent and absorbing; but whether it would work on stage, without the crutch of a text at hand, is hard to judge. Andrew Clements