Péter Eötvös conceived his opera Senza Sangue (Without Blood) as a complement to Bartók's Bluebeard's Castle. Premiered in concert in 2015, and staged independently in Avignon this past summer, Dmitri Tcherniakov has now staged and designed Senza Sangue together with Bluebeard's Castle for Staatsoper Hamburg in a fabulously effective new production. Eötvös' seven-scene, 45-minute work concludes with a woman inviting a man who murdered her father to sleep with her. When we see them post-coitus in a hotel room, the music for Bluebeard's Castle has already begun (the prologue is omitted) and we recognize the man and woman as Doppelgängers. While Judith lies in bed, Bluebeard attempts to end his life by slitting his wrist. She springs up to intervene, and all that follows unfolds within the confined space as her effort to unlock his inner demons. Eötvös conducted an extraordinarily passionate reading of Bartók's score, balanced by his own more aphoristic, and often gripping film-like setting of Senza Sangue.

Angela Denoke (Nina) and Sergei Leiferkus (Tito) © Monika Rittershaus
Angela Denoke (Nina) and Sergei Leiferkus (Tito)
© Monika Rittershaus

The man who goes by the name of Tito is drawn from Alessandro Baricco's 2012 novel Senza Sangue. Since the day he and two others soldiers killed a war criminal, he has been haunted by the fact that the victim's daughter knows his identity. When a woman approaches him and links him to the murder scene, he anticipates his own end, but wrongly. The two begin a dialogue in a café. The vocal style is mostly parlando throughout, sometimes uncannily restrained as is the text (sung in Italian), while the expansive orchestra serves as a radiant hotbed of nerves and tension.

Sergei Leiferkus and Angela Denoke, realistically and superbly cast as the older man and middle-aged Nina, share the stage with a handful of extras who move in slow-motion through the bleak atmosphere of this nowheresville encounter. During a monologue for Nina, she approaches some of the strangers only to be repelled like a pariah. These folks are themselves isolated and dysfunctional. Nina explains to Tito how her life has tragically unfolded, how she was sold into marriage at 14. A frenetic, explosive interlude then carries us into the sixth scene, when they are alone onstage for the first time and she presses him to share his own perspective. Nina's recollection of the fateful evening sounds as a remote dream. In the final revelatory scene, Tito explains how he recognized in her eyes, when he discovered her hiding all those years ago, a kind of peace he had not before known. It was this Tristanesque gaze that motivated him to let her presence remain unknown. Her surprising suggestion that they sleep together unfolds as a catharsis along these lines, while tolling bells lend emotional weight to their union.

Angela Denoke (Nina) and Sergei Leiferkus (Tito) © Monika Rittershaus
Angela Denoke (Nina) and Sergei Leiferkus (Tito)
© Monika Rittershaus

The slick overlap of the two operas is handled through distinctive costuming. In the hotel room, the man we first recognize as Tito could well want to end his life. As Bartók's music steers us, however, into the older drama, Bluebeard inherits Tito's guilt, while Judith assumes Nina's nearly obsessive attraction to him. With Bluebeard's suicide attempt, Judith herself takes on the role of rescuer, endeavoring to gain his trust to allow her to delve into his psyche. As Judith, Claudia Mahnke begins full of optimism, sung with lush vitality fully supported by Eötvös, who shaped achingly tender music for both her and Bluebeard, with the latter periodically revealing extreme fragility. The orchestra plays a key role in suggesting what it is that Judith sees behind the doors and what we might imagine. In this interpretation, which works brilliantly with the text, Bluebeard looks unknowing each time a door is opened, until Judith tells him what she sees. He accepts her suggestions and develops them, until the musical picture morphs and she hints at darker layers of truth.

Claudia Mahnke (Judith) and Bálint Szabó (Bluebeard) © Monika Rittershaus
Claudia Mahnke (Judith) and Bálint Szabó (Bluebeard)
© Monika Rittershaus

The production focuses on the physical as well as psychological interaction between Bluebeard and Judith, with Tcherniakov fruitfully exploring the music's expressive potential. The fourth door, for example, reveals some of the opera's most voluptuous passages and they begin to make love, their passion seeming genuine for a stretch. During the climactic opening of the fifth door, Bluebeard marched deliriously in circles on the bed with his arms outstretched; a terrifying gesture of his potential for violence, convincingly and sonorously sung by Bálint Szabó. A generous pause set off Judith's flat response to this madness in the sharpest relief. By the penultimate door, Bluebeard lay on the floor exhausted, the shimmering music of the lake of tears suggesting a quieter soul. With the last door, the room transformed through video projections to a view of an expansive beach under a bright blue sky. Interjected images superimposed Judith and Bluebeard in the roles of Tito and Nina, when he peered into her hiding place and met her gaze. Atypically, but utterly persuasively in this superb operatic pairing, his final confession engenders a sense of release, freedom, and even compassion, as Judith slides under the bedcover beside him.