“Sleepless” at the Grand Théâtre, crushed fates in a skilfully suggestive lyrical canvas

A large salmon with a glassy eye and cleaned in the middle; a device that rotates on itself to open up various playgrounds; white fumaroles and frost clouds. Just the decor Sleepless suggests a Scandinavian world isolated from the rest of humanity, where there is little light to escape the judgment of the small, introverted societies. Peter Eötvös paints the portrait of two survivors injured by a society that does not care about their fate.

Also read: Peter Eötvös, opera painter

In a sparse room in the Grand Theater on Tuesday night, Peter Eötvös’ thirteenth and final opera premiered after a first series of performances four months ago at the Staatsoper in Berlin. Adapted from three short novels by the Norwegian author Jon Fosse collected in his Trilogy, Sleepless focuses on the fate of two young people who are victims of fate, penniless, rejected from all sides. The opera might as well have been called “restless” as the male anti-hero Asle turns out to be feverish, agitated, on the run from a fate – and actions – that he does not control.

Bias of “naivety”

A murderer, Asle? The question remains open. And it is on this riddle that Peter Eötvös and his wife Mari Mezei built the booklet. Jon Fosse’s text is cut to the bone. One thing is immediately striking: it is the character of the libretto, characterized by short sentences, laconic answers, in a very everyday language. We are far from Josse Fosse’s more relaxed style, which uses a narrative with long and less long sentences, marked by cessations, waving in waves that compose like quiet music. In rare moments, the libretto becomes more lyrical, more metaphorical.

There is a bias of “naivety” in the story – a bit weak dramaturgically – which has its consequences for the music. The action, quite linear, reaches its climax in the second part. Alida’s companion, Asle, is nothing more than a puppet: the man in black he meets on his way makes him take up his responsibilities. Incarnated with the strength and talent of bass baritone Tomas Tomassen, this “messenger of destiny” – half drunk, half clairvoyant – therefore fills an essential part of the story: it will hasten the end of Asle, hanged for his crimes, send his companion back to a gaping loneliness.

protective lethargy

Between realism and surrealism, the staging of director Kornél Munduczcó takes us to the heart of this Norway with a linear and pale horizon. Choir of fishermen, boat rental company, mad old woman, seductive prostitute, jeweler make up a community that is spiritually intoxicated. The murders committed by Asle are hinted at by quick sequences, lurking. It is as if nothing has happened. In addition, Asle’s friend Alida is thrown into a dream every time he plays out. Protected by celestial female voices (two vocal trios in spatialization), she then enters a kind of protective dullness.

Kornél Mundruczo creates a film atmosphere while directing the singer-actors in a very concrete game. He trusts the mocking features of the music to aggravate the burlesque part. We are immersed in this operatic Peter Grimes de Britten for its maritime subject, its individuals on the fringes of society and even certain sound layers in the strings.

A little wise and expected

The orchestral material is skillfully woven, with great fluidity from stage to stage, the voices posing as glimpses and shadows on this driving sound material. No screams or whispers, but organic and loose vocal lines. The music can be listened to without major obstacles. It has a suggestive character. Emergencies arise from the depths, with scintillations on the surface, a host of interventions from solo instruments that generate textures alternately variegated, nervous, crisp, glittering. The fishermen ring the bells in a beautiful vocal sextet, the prostitute rolls out sparkling vocalizations.

By its “classicism” in the writing and arrangement of the scenes, Sleepless does not deviate from the conventions of the genre: the voices distributed as in a traditional opera (tenor, soprano, etc.), a coloratura soprano number entrusted to the prostitute, drinking scenes, the ancient chorus that comments on the action, until ‘with a symbolic outcome, typical of repentance – almost biblical – from a sudden death (Alida’s suicide) to a redemptive eternity.

All of this seems a little clever, a little expected, but Peter Eötvös’ profession is undeniable: in the absence of big surprises, we will enjoy the quality of the vocal writing and instrumentation, always on point. The cast is high-flying, starting with Lienard Vrielin’s feverish Asle, Victoria Randem’s sensitive Alida, then the bubbly Sarah Defrise as prostitute, the jeweler (Siyabonga Maqungo), Asle’s husband (Arttu Kataja). Peter Eötvös draws from OSR a palette of colors and timbres that perfectly match the spirit of the work.

Sleepless, Grand Théâtre, Geneva, until April 5th.

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