Sleepless: gloomy yet beautiful Péter Eötvös opera in the Müpa

Article: Zsuzsanna Deák

Translation: Zsófia Hacsek

In the dark and brutal story of Sleepless, hope shines through hopelessness. One of the most renowned contemporary opera writers brings his newest piece to Budapest: at the show, part of the Bartók Spring International Arts Festival on 12 April, composer Péter Eötvös himself will conduct.

“For me the genre of opera is an absolute miracle; it’s incredible that 400 years ago someone sensed its power so perfectly, and that it exists to this day”

– said Péter Eötvös in the Bartók Spring Magazine interview who wrote this newest opera, Sleepless, commissioned by the Staatsoper Berlin. He also explained how important is to use contemporary texts in his operas, as the piece is not for the moment but for the future. He wants his to be just as relevant and just as connected to our own age as classical operas that are still played today.

“Every opera represents and conveys the age in which it was written, and my operas will only be able to deliver the most complete message about our time to future generations when their librettos are derived from contemporary raw materials.”

The libretto of Sleepless is based on the first part of Jon Fosse’s Trilogy and was written by Mária Mezei, Eötvös’ wife and constant co-creator. Fosse is one of the most popular Norwegian crime fiction writers of today who perfected the mixture of crime and psyche the genre. In his ballad-like works, sin, traumas, the suffocating power of the past, the contrast between rebellious and then failing human and indifferent society play the main role. The story of precarious couple Alida and Asle is childishly innocent yet deeply sinful. This is a timeless yet modern tale which shows innocent people committing horrible crimes.

“Everything is allowed when in need”

– the boy says when trying to find a shelter with his pregnant girlfriend among the cold fjords of Bergen. The couple, children themselves, do not find any helping hand: people do not like vagabonds in their area. In their final despair, they break into someone’s house, and that’s where a chain of frightening and paralysing events start, even bringing the traumas of past into the present. The story ends in tragedy – so can this alienated place, this psychic gloom, the darkest of nights in the freezing North, bring us to the catharsis that resolves pain in the end of operas?

If there is a story that needs to be adapted into a modern opera, this is it. Even the original text has a strong musicality: lyric, rhythmic, operating with repetitions, working with strong motifs make it music-like. Eötvös and the Berlin opera have had a long selection process until they agreed upon Sleepless. They have examined many different stories of different cultures until finally choosing this tale with its gloom and strong symbolism, showing the contrast between societal indifference and individual vulnerability. The pregnant woman and her partner looking for a shelter evokes contemporary events just as much as a 2000-year-old story. It is timeless, because it is ancient and contemporary at the same time. Sleepless operates with 13 scenes. The beginning and the end is set on a beach, with B as its base, but otherwise every scene is based on a different key.

“All twelve notes take their turn in the intermediate scenes, providing the character of each scene in the manner of pale or saturated colours. This is nothing new: in Mozart’s operas, the key in which something sounds carries a similar dramaturgical significance”

– the composer revealed. He also used two Norwegian melodies in the piece: a painfully beautiful lullaby and a folk motif, “Fanitullen”, played on solo violin which is sometimes called the devil’s instrument.

The premiere of the opera happened last year in the Staatsoper Berlin. It provided a concept for the whole season: their current whole season is called Sleepless. Directed by Hungarian Kornél Mundruczó, the show was a major success. Financial Times writes about the enchanting beauty of the music and the greatness of the show, whereas a reviewer of Bachtrack called it exciting and stunning. On the stage in Berlin, a huge salmon was the scenery, but the Budapest premiere will be concert-like to make us only concentrate to the easily processable, beautiful and agitating music, which will be sung by the Berlin singers. Alida and Asle will be played by critically acclaimed and popular Victoria Randem and Linard Vrielink, and you can also see Péter Eötvös himself conducting the Hungarian National Philharmonics.

Get your tickets here!


Article: Zsuzsanna Deák

Translation: Zsófia Hacsek