On March 3, NYC new music hotspot The Kitchen packed the house for the final performance of the world-premiere production of Song from the Uproar: The Lives and Deaths of Isabelle Eberhardt by Brooklyn-based composer, Missy Mazzoli and presented by Beth Morrison Projects. Song from the Uproar is a visually and aurally ravishing chamber opera for solo mezzo soprano, chorus, and instrumental ensemble based on the short and tragic life of Isabelle Eberhardt, a Swiss woman who lost her family at the turn of the century, and at nineteen, ran away to Algeria. While there, she disguised herself as a man and joined a Sufi order, fell in love with an Algerian soldier, survived failed assassination AND suicide attempts, and ultimately perished in the desert during a flash flood at the age of twenty-seven. Ms. Mazzoli was inspired to compose an opera (previously a song cycle) on Eberhardt’s colorful, if not operatic, life after coming across her journals eight years ago. She teamed up with a fantastic production team that deftly combined music (both live and pre-recorded), movement, and intriguing original abstract video by filmmaker Stephen Taylor. The video depicted images of people, barren desert vistas, and flashes of light projected on three hanging curtains onstage as well as a large screen overhead, creating a captivating, multimedia spectacle in the intimate space.
Portraying the enigmatic protagonist was Abigail Fischer, elegant and beautiful in both looks and sound. Ms. Fischer’s powerful mezzo voice cut through the chamber orchestra with ease, and her nimble but always graceful carriage combined with her boundless dramatic energy made it impossible to look away from her. She captured the essence of every emotion from supreme confidence, to abject vulnerability and was in short, everything that one hopes for in a leading lady.
Supporting Ms. Fisher was a fine ensemble of singers who also served as the corps de ballet, taking on a range of characters from prim Victorian Era ladies and gentlemen to whirling dervishes, with utmost skill and beauty. The acclaimed six-piece NOW ensemble (flute, clarinet, electric guitar, double bass, and piano), led by Stephen Osgood, supported the drama well and played with great precision. Maestro Osgood had a fantastic command of his players and expertly balanced the voices and instruments throughout.
Ms. Mazzoli’s score was eclectic, hauntingly lyrical, and full of surprises. Her use of the chorus was particularly impressive as was her masterful orchestration, which was always appropriate, colorful, and never overpowering. Mazzoli’s fans should appreciate that Song from the Uproar builds on elements that have become hallmarks of the composer’s musical sound, including a clever interplay of live instruments and electronics, Glass-esque repeating musical figures that transmute over time, “pure” voices performing vocalises senza vibrato, and low drones supporting the entire musical texture. This opera called to mind many of Mazzoli’s earlier compositions including the 2009 “A Thousand Tongues” for voice, cello, and electronics, and “A Song for Mick Kelley” (2010), written for her ensemble, Victoire. Director Gia Forakis deserves the highest praise for her work. She and her team conceived and choreographed a stunning artwork of sight and sound that worked extremely well the intimate space of The Kitchen, but would not feel out of place on a larger stage as well. Song from the Uproar is a thrilling drama that deserves to be performed many more times in the future.
Lauren Alfano is a New York-based soprano, http://www.laurenalfanosoprano.com.