The dreaded appearance of director Dominique Meyer from behind the main curtain boded poorly for the opening of Hungarian composer, Péter EötvösTri Sestri at the Staatsoper Sunday evening. Instead, however, of announcing a last minute cancellation, Meyer offered the audience a moment to stand and pay their silent respects to the late Nikolaus Harnoncourt, who passed away Saturday. Although Harnoncourt seemed to have a closer relationship with Theater an der Wien than with the Staatsoper of late, it was a touching, appropriate offering of respect.

Tri Sestri (Three Sisters) is based on Anton Chekov’s fin de siècle play by the same name. It contains, like so many Russian literary works, a plethora of characters with mind-bending subtleties in their bearing and relationships. Without knowing the original, the complexity of character and plot would be nearly overwhelming for the viewer had not Eötvös taken the liberty of telling Chekov’s tale not chronologically, but instead through a series of three “sequences” (i.e. acts), each of which focuses on a similar point in time in Chekov’s drama, but told through the eyes of a different protagonist. In this way, by the end of the third telling, one has gained a layered view of most of the characters, and can likely tell them apart. Beyond that, the musical and textual repetition hold the entire work together firmly.

The opening sequence features the youngest sister of the Prozorov clan, Irina (stunning: Aida Garifullina), who longs to escape the provinces for Moscow and is pulled between two suitors, neither of which she loves. She opts for Baron Tusenbach (strong: Boaz Daniel), who is shot in a duel by the jealous Sojony (darkly menacing: Viktor Shevchenko). The second act focuses on the brother, Andrei (convincing: Gabriel Bermúdez), whose life he deplores. His wife, Natascha (shrill shock-factor in drag: Eric Jurenas) is cuckolding him, his career as a professor has come to naught and he has lost control of his household. The final sequence stars the brash middle sister, Mascha (spectacular: Margarita Gritskova) who is in love with the soldier Verschinin (brilliant: Clemens Unterreiner), but returns unhappily to her simple, devoted husband Kulygin (impressive: Dan Paul Dumitrescu) upon Vershinin’s departure. The third sister, spinster Olga (rich-voiced: Ilseyar Khayrullova) while never the centerpoint of a sequence, is present throughout, offering advice, defending the aged nurse, Anfissa (Marcus Pelz) or offering advice to her sisters.  

Up-and-coming director Yuval Sharon along with stage designer Esther Bialas ran with Eötvös’ approach spectacularly, placing the entire drama in a massive room with walls reaching to the heavens, and candlewax drippings to the floor, an indication of passed time. On numerous rolling treadmills, objects and figures – including birch trees, clavinovas, stylized marching soldiers and massive doors – are continuously transported though the room, putting the entire action into the context of a dream world, unhinged from the hooks of chronology. Each sequence is treated differently in terms of color and shading – Iriana’s white dress turns dark after her sequence is completed, in the second sequence a blend of brown tones with purple and grey shadings are featured, and so on. Sharon’s detailed approach to direction needs particular commendation – touches like the rhythmic clinking of spoons against teacups in the third sequence were genius, and he deserved every bit of the raucous applause he was granted. The only thing that did not blend with the rest of the look was the video work (Jason H. Thompson) which, though beautiful, was extraneous and distracting.

Vocally and dramatically, the cast did Eötvös’ complex, demanding score proud. From the opening prologue, a gorgeous trio sung by the three sisters on massive swings, to the often-required Sprechgesang, down to the tiny, falsetto duet sung by soldiers, Rodé (Jason Bridges) and Fedotik (Jinxu Xiahou) the execution was admirable. Eötvös is no less demanding of his musicians, demanding instruments played in traditional and highly a-traditional methods.  The score calls for a double orchestra, the first of which the composer conducted from the pit, the second of which - led by Jonathan Stockhammer – is revealed towards the close of the work, wearing Russian garb. The downside to so much sound is that the tendency to cover the singers is very real, and was very unfortunately the case during much of the evening. Though Eötvös’ musical language is certainly not everyone’s cup of tea – and even for lovers of modern music can become tiresome with its plethora of percussion, screeching, plucking and rough soundscapes – there are many moments of true artistic beauty, fabulous music making and effective drama. The applause and screams at the premiere were raucously frenetic – and while the hysteria seemed a bit exaggerated, an energetically positive reception was completely justified.