The audience at the Staatsoper Berlin applauded the world premiere of Sleepless, Péter Eötvös' thirteenth opera, warmly. He also conducted the work, a co-production with the Grand Théâtre de Genève. Stage director Kornél Mundruczó places the story of a young couple whose hopeless situation leads to violence, in and around a gigantic stranded salmon in a forlorn Norwegian coastal village.

Linard Vrielink (Asle), Victoria Randem (Alida) and Hanna Schwarz (Old Woman)
© Gianmarco Bresadola

Based on the Trilogy by Norwegian author Jon Fosse, the libretto by Mari Mezei condenses the story into two acts. The young couple Alida and Asle – she is heavily pregnant – are homeless when their boathouse is sold and the new owner evicts them. On a wet and cold night, they go to Alida's estranged mother, asking her to put them up. When the mother gets violent toward Alida, Asle kills her. Now they are on the run. Next they head to a prostitute, who would take Asle, but not Alida. And so the tragedy takes its course as they practically force themselves into the home of an old woman and push her into her own fridge, killing her too. In the end, justice catches up with them and Asle is hanged. Alida has by now given birth and an older man from her village recognises her and gives her shelter. 

Victoria Randem (Alida), Hanna Schwarz (Old Woman) and Linard Vrielink (Asle)
© Gianmarco Bresadola

Although Fosse's work was first published in 1988, the historical association with Mary and Joseph in search of shelter on the one hand, but also with the current refugee situation in the Balkans and elsewhere on the other make the plot more than relevant to today's audience. The story deals with the existential search for belonging, lawbreaking as a reaction to human indifference, and the struggle with one's own search for identity and place in society. The other association that comes to mind is to Bonnie and Clyde, the murderous American couple of the 1930s.

Set and costume designer Monika Promale provides a surreal setting for this opera ballad, as Eötvös calls it: an oversized salmon with the fishy scales providing the backdrop for outdoor scenes and the meaty insides, fish bones and all, for the interior scenes. Why salmon? They wander far away but return home to spawn – yet another analogy?

Roman Trekel (Boatman), Linard Vrielink (Asle) and Siyabonga Maqungo (Jeweller)
© Gianmarco Bresadola

Eötvös states, “My music is theatre music”. It is no wonder that the melodies the 77-year-old composer puts on paper are always dramatic, rich in imagery, vivid and, indeed, theatrical. He achieves this with normal orchestration plus a few additional percussion instruments. His music always remains harmonious, no strident discordancies here. As a conductor, he kept the fine-sounding Staatskapelle under gentle control, right down to the last, fading solo violin note.

The singers were well cast in this multifaceted work, with astonishingly good English diction. Soprano Victoria Randem sang Alida with lush equanimity and beautiful shadings. Her characterisation of the young mother and her concern for her newborn, to the extent of shutting all extraneous events around her, is remarkable. The very bright, high tenor of Linard Vrielink was a good fit for the desperate but loving Asle, the future father turned nervous murderer. The smaller roles each develop their own personality, notably mezzo Hanna Schwarz as the Old Woman, and Siyabonga Maqungo with his clear tenor in the role of a jeweller, as well as the sparky soprano of Sarah Defrise as a frivolous village whore. Baritone Tómas Tómasson was the Man in Black who brings Asle to justice. Gentle-voiced baritone Arttu Kataja extended a protective hand to Alida in her hour of greatest need. Alida's mother was sung with adequate sounding hysterics by mezzo Katharina Kammerloher, and baritone Roman Trekel was a boisterous innkeeper. 

Linard Vrielink (Asle) and Sarah Defrise (Girl)
© Gianmarco Bresadola

The plot of this opera ballad is as despondent as the November weather in real life. The only solution it offers for its protagonists is death – Asle is hanged in an act of citizen justice and a grey-haired Alida returns in an epilogue with final aria telling the ghost of Asle about the good villager Asleik giving her and her son a decent life. But she cannot forget her true love and looks forward to joining him soon as she walks into the sea, drowning herself.