Review: Song from the Uproar
Composer Missy Mazzoli rediscovers a lost, gender-bending explorer.
Tue Feb 28 2012
Photograph: Paula Court
Time Out Ratings :<strong>Rating: </strong>5/5
The philosopher Catherine Clment called opera a "spectacle thought up to adore, and also to kill, the feminine character." Critics of her views counter that men in opera don't always have it any easier—think Verdi's Macbeth or Wagner's Tristan—and that the form's supposed victims are portrayed by divas who rise in glory to sing again.
As revivified in composer Missy Mazzoli's enthralling Song from the Uproar, Isabelle Eberhardt is no victim. Yes, the historic Isabelle died in 1904 at age 27, but the Swiss explorer crammed several lives into those scant three decades. She dressed as a man, traveled throughout North Africa, joined a Sufi brotherhood, survived attempted murder, married an Algerian soldier, and wrote books and a journal recovered from the flood that killed her.
"I'll pick out my own song" Isabelle declares, and at one point she actually dismisses the pianist and takes charge of the music herself. Gracefully androgynous, mezzo-soprano Abigail Fischer makes for a spellbinding heroine. Her throbbing, claret voice turns raw with pain against the blistering sound of the electric guitar when she learns of her husband's betrayal, and her face glows from within as she hails the "blanket of blazing stars" ready to welcome her in death.
Missy Mazzoli's kaleidoscopic score begins with static and a metallic shudder, and embraces slithering cello lines for Isabelle's erotic reveries and ghostly, echoing voices as she wanders the desert, "the one most loved." A five-person chorus depicts Bedouins, Isabelle's family and even aspects of herself, as if the life force within her were more than one body could contain.
The NOW Ensemble under Steven Osgood plays splendidly. Stephen Taylor's videos—vintage footage of dunes and waves, flowers blooming and shriveling—with projection design by S. Katy Tucker add layers of poetry to director Gia Forakis's fluid, gently hieratic choreography. Zane Pihlstrom's spare set, Alixandra Englund's elegant costumes and Scott Bolman's lighting all contribute to the magic of this extraordinary piece, a paean to a woman whose indomitable spirit sings on, even in death.