Three Sisters: The Play by Anton Chexov and the Opera by Peter Eotvos

Radislav Lapushin, University of Chicago

The opera Three Sisters, written by the modern Hungarian composer Peter Eotvos, premiered in France and was also released on disc by Deutsche Grammophon in 1999. The opera is likely to be surprising to an unprepared listener (spectator) from its very opening. The composer, who is also a co-author of the libretto, starts his work with the final monologues of Chexov's sisters, whose parts are performed by three countertenors (all the roles here are played by men). This inevitably provokes association with Baroque opera and Japanese Kabuki, while the opera seems anything but a realistic representation of Russian life of the nineteenth century. Timelessness seems to be a key word in describing Peter Eotvos's approach to Chexov's play. Three sisters for him are pure souls expressing the inescapable misery of the human condition apart from the contingencies of life in any specific country and any specific time.

Furthermore, Peter Eotvos completely alters the structure of the play. Instead of four original acts with all the events following in chronological order, the composer suggests three "sequences" (his own term), each of which concentrates on a particular character (Irina, Andrej, and Masha respectively). This restructuring leads to the repetition of certain episodes (Natasha crossing the stage with a candle, Chebutykin smashing the family clock, and others), which in turn creates leitmotifs different from those in Chexov's play, but still not alien to his artistic system and obviously inspired by it. It also creates a very particular temporal structure in which there is no division between past and present, and according to which the sequence of events ceases to be irreversible. For example, Tuzenbax, who is killed at the end of the first (Irina's) "sequence," comes back to the stage to participate in the next "sequence" (devoted to Irina's brother Andrej). Captivated by his conception, Peter Eotvos seems to ignore any movement of time (and correspondingly, the development of the plot) in Chexov's play. His three sisters are already doomed and fatally unable to change their lives even before the curtain has risen. Not by chance, therefore, Peter Eotvos opens his opera with their final monologues.

On the other hand, following the text of the libretto, it is easy to see how carefully, in spite of inevitable cuts, the composer tries to retain the rhythm of Chexov's phrasing and dynamics of his dialogue, how attentive he is to the inner music of Chexov's discourse. It is interesting that, having excluded all traces of "Russianness" in his opera, Peter Eotvos nevertheless decided on Russian as the language for his libretto (the initial choice was German). And as I intend to demonstrate, some of the purely musical devices used for representation of characters have their analogies in Chexov's poetics. Summing up: in its approach to Chexov's play, the opera by Peter Eotvos constitutes a paradoxical unity of a total reconstruction on some levels (the plot, the images of space and time) with a careful treatment of the original text on some others (language, leitmotifs, the combination of irony and dramatic effects, characters' mutual mirroring and echoing of each other). But even as he departs from Chexov, the composer seems to underline, to magnify, so to speak, some significant yet "hidden" features inherent in this play and in Chexov's creative art in general.