Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Into the discomfort zone: 'Song from the Uproar' muses on a turn-of-the-20th-century Swiss woman's self-exile to Algeria

Isabelle (Abigail Fischer) is swept up in Sufi mysticism in "100 Names for God," a scene in "Song from the Uproar."
Cultural consciousness of female self-fulfillment is at a fever pitch nowadays, but it was an extraordinary, fraught experience for our grandmothers and great-grandmothers, exercised only fitfully and at great risk.

When put in the context of opera, a brave woman's story pushes back against the legacy of female heroines both vulnerable and victimized, with occasional outbursts of heroism, slanted toward maleness: Beethoven's Fidelio has to be a man for the sake of rescuing a man.

Missy Mazzoli and Royce Vavrek have an exceptional tale to tell in examining "the lives and deaths of Isabelle Eberhardt," to quote the subtitle of "Song from the Uproar." The one-act opera opened Monday night in a Cincinnati Opera production in collaboration with concert:nova, a local chamber-music organization.

The unusual plurals in the subtitle signal the fragmentary nature of Eberhardt's bizarre, truncated path (1877-1904). Stunned by the deaths of three close family members when she was 21, she departed Switzerland alone, traveling to Algeria. She dressed as a man, became a Sufi Muslim, and fell in love with an Algerian soldier. The love affair soured, a suicide pact fizzled, she survived an assassination attempt unrelated to the liaison, and at 27 she succumbed in a desert flash flood. The waterlogged journals she kept survived. From that fragmentary personal record, Vavrek fashioned a libretto, assisted by Mazzoli, the composer.

In concentrated form, then, Eberhardt seems to have lived a series of lives and deaths. The salient facts of her short time on earth almost defeat the very idea of coherent narrative.  There is no plot to "Song From the Uproar." In a preconcert talk, Mazzoli described it as a kind of fever-dream.

The contents of the dream are voiced mainly by drifting Eberhardt monologues, with vocal support from five singers. Three dancers from Cincinnati Ballet flesh out Isabelle's memories and imaginings. Under the direction of Marco Pelle, the cast as a whole is in constant movement in and around diaphanous white cloth panels (sometimes altered by projected images) suspended from high above in the black-box environs of the Fifth Third Bank Theater of the Aronoff Center for the Arts. The scenic design's other main feature is a large, mottled, sun-baked tree trunk with stubby branches, a reminder of nature's harshness in the desert climate.

As Isabelle Eberhardt, Abigail Fischer is the cynosure of the show. Displaying a mezzo-soprano of both versatile warmth and metallic sheen, Fischer was also a spectacular actor. Moving with the ease and restlessness of the adventuress she portrays, she  reflected the unquenchable grief that drove Isabelle from everything familiar to her toward an unknown world both exhilarating and threatening. The grief and anxiety return and intensify; the joys are more fleeting.

The events summarized above, as transmuted by the opera's creators, require of the show's star both physical and vocal flexibility and the capacity to convey authenticity in every gesture and facial expression. Thomas C. Hase's lighting puts a premium on that ability, and Fischer's was outstanding.

Keitaro Harada conducted, with the band off to the side of the stage opposite the tree. The instrumentation, supplemented by electronics, is flute, clarinet, piano, electric guitar and double bass. Coordination seemed to be flawless, and the brilliance of the scoring indelibly served the story and the vocal line, which the unnamed and largely symbolic characters performed in choral fashion by two sopranos, alto, tenor, and baritone.

Isabelle in focus, observed from a desert tree.
Mazzoli displays in "Song From the Uproar" a personal voice, free of the need to evoke styles connected to the opera's time and place. A partial exception is "Chanson," with its buzzing evocation of old cafe music and vernacular dance that suits some of the erotic byplay of that scene of dissipation and the mixed feelings that often wash over drunks.

The suicide pact with her Algerian lover and her attempted assassination by a religious fanatic were vividly staged. An episode of interaction with the female dancer seems to be symbolic of Isabelle's rapture at the exotic milieu she has entered into out of desperation. I see it as indicating her embrace of Algerians and Muslims more than a same-sex liaison, but perhaps I'm mistaken. It was a little unclear to me how consistent Isabelle's disguise as a man was supposed to be.

Mazzoli's score lends itself to a smooth interplay between operatic focus and textures that are almost like underscoring. There is a very effective suggestion of a diva's big aria in "Mektoub (It Is Written) Part Two," where Isabelle is convulsed anew by despair after her strenuously adopted life has collapsed. "O capsized heart" reprises an earlier outcry, and it has that well-upholstered feeling, with substantial choral and ensemble support, of a climactic aria.

As for the sound palette of the work, the electric guitar sports its predictably individualized voice, but its fusion with conventional classical instruments sounds complete and natural. It also represents a bridge in tone color to the prerecorded parts of the score, including Isabelle's voice, which makes the opera's subdued conclusion so moving.

The one piece of Mazzoli's I knew before "Song from the Uproar" was "Still Life With Avalanche," a nonvocal piece commissioned by eighth blackbird. The common thread I find admirable is her fresh way of conveying emotion in structurally cohesive ways, so that a steady pulse and dense harmonies are complemented by exuberant melodies and vigorous gestures in an unhackneyed manner. The fever-dream image — suggesting the overlay of memories upon daily experience —  is fully realized by the boldness, apparent spontaneity, and clarity of the music. The drifting down of pages representing Isabelle's journal near the end is the perfect visual complement to the marvels of Mazzoli's composition: Patterns seem to emerge from life's accidents, and make sense once they can be truly observed and appropriately paced.

[Photos by Philip Groshong]