Après Missy Mazzoli, le Deluge

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Opera producer Beth Morrison spares no expense: For the world premiere of Missy Mazzoli’s Song from the Uproar, an opera about adventuress Isabelle Eberhardt who ultimately met her fate in a flash flood, audience members shuffled into the Kitchen through a biblical rain.

Okay, perhaps that part couldn’t be entirely credited to Morrison, but you wouldn’t want to put it past her. The immersive qualities of Song rely in no small part on its multimedia production values by Stephen S. Taylor, beginning with a pre-show title card projected onto a scrim accompanied by static-y found sounds, layers of ghostly scratches from the past. The work itself, expanded from a monodrama into a piece for soloist and a five-person Greek chorus, uses grainy black-and-white video projections to supplement much of Eberhardt’s story: Born to an aristocratic Swiss mother and an Armenian anarchist who was tutor to her half-siblings, Eberhardt lost her parents and half-brother by her early 20s and subsequently moved to Northern Africa, dressing as a man for greater liberty and converting to Islam. Before the fatal flood, she married an Algerian soldier, Slimane Ehnni and kept journals which survived.

We see much of this story, particularly its travels, reflected in projections of a young girl with her father, ocean waters, birds, blooming flowers, a swimmer-drowner, Algerian crowds and smoke. It takes the concept of film in Lulu that you wonder how another production of Song would tell the same story with different resources and still express the waves of floodwaters and waves of memory.

Musically, Mazzoli’s work is coded in a Mozartean way, placing the onus of expression on the singer while accompaniment, varied though it may be, eschews the lead. It’s an apt fit for Eberhardt, a misfit in both the European and African worlds and one that is handled with characteristic aplomb by mezzo-soprano Abigail Fischer. Fischer uses the repetitions of musical lines and choreographed movement (courtesy of director Gia Forakis) as a means of understanding her character’s own state of being, the way a burgeoning reader would sound out the same word until it clicked in their head.

Abigail Fischer (center, right) as Isabelle Eberhardt with the company of Song from the Uproar. Photo: James Matthew Daniel

Such repetition also takes the form of grieving and mourning, in a time where an afflicted person may be unaware of what they say or how often they say it. It’s a sense memory triggered so deftly that, when Eberhardt sings of Slimane’s infidelities, it’s not the loss of a love that registers; it’s the loss in general. There are musical and motion outbursts that come in satisfying shocks: At one point, on a bender, Fischer even goes upstage to where the NOW Ensemble was supplying the score, cozies up to pianist Michael Mizrahi like a dispossessed Marlene Dietrich and overtakes the keyboard, moving obsessively from duet to solo.

While Mazzoli’s obsessive and sensitive stalking of Eberhardt’s essence over the years has resulted in a score that’s ethereal and wholly immersive much like Glass’s nonlinear Satyagraha (punctuated with Wagnerian chord progressions and, in one instance, a flute flourish that mimicked the opening clarinet line of Strauss’s Salome), no small amount of credit is also due to librettist Royce Vavrek. Working with Eberhardt’s extant journals, Vavrek created an oeuvre that comes across as a waterlogged archive reconstructed lovingly by a meticulous archivist.

Equally enamored of Eberhardt as Mazzoli, Vavrek imbues his heroine with empathetic values while also recognizing her demons and conflicts, allowing her to vacillate between a female Lawrence of Arabia and an outcast precursor to the figures of the Lost Generation. With all elements tied together, the final product is a cool 75 minutes that packs a Ring–worthy punch, rain or no rain. Mazzoli’s world, with subtle emotional shifts and a denial of maudlin melodrama, is a meticulously maintained Versailles of abstraction and atmosphere. It may be overwhelming to live there permanently, but it’s a hell of a place to visit.