Photo: Diamond's Edge

Marion Newman. Photo DiamondsEdge

City Opera Vancouver
Song from the Uproar: the Lives and Deaths of Isabelle Eberhardt by Missy Mazzoli, libretto by Royce Vavrek and Missy Mazzoli

When & Where February 29 & March 2 at 7:30pm, March 3 at 2pm | York Theatre, 639 Commercial Dr. Vancouver

Cast: Isabelle Marion Newman Chorus Christina Demeo, Katie Fraser, Emma Jang, Kiho Sohn, Jason Somerville.
Orchestra: Flute/piccolo Paolo Bortolussi Clarinets AK Coope Electric Guitar Michael Kolk Double Bass Mark Haney Piano Frances Armstrong

Conductor Gordon Gerrard Director Ann Hodges Set and Projections Wlad Woyno & Katayoon Yousefbigloo Lighting Design Alexandra Caprara Costume Design Alaia Hamer Choreography Livona Ellis Stage Manager Collette Berg

In English with English surtitles

Reviewer Elizabeth Paterson

The first sound to be heard of Missy Mazzoli’s impressive score is crackling static, perhaps the sound of an old movie reel whirring, perhaps radio static, perhaps something else entirely. This unstable introduction perfectly reflects the elusive, questioning world of Isabelle Eberhardt. When she was 20, Isabelle abandoned her native, rather stuffy Switzerland for Algeria. Like Hester Stanhope earlier and other independent women before and after, she adopted and adapted an Arab way of life, wearing men’s clothes, converting to Islam, marrying an Algerian and possibly spying. Like Gertrude Bell, a near contemporary, she allied herself with Arab nationalism and advocated for Algeria’s independence.

While she is not so well-known as Lady Hester or Gertrude Bell, at least in the English-speaking world, she has been the subject of biographies, films and a play by Timberlake Wertenbaker and recently quite a lot of her work has been translated, including her diaries. It was reading her work that inspired Missy Mazzoli to write this opera. While the music is entirely Mazzoli with few obvious references to historical period, Europe or Arab Algeria, the words are almost entirely Eberhardt’s. Librettist Royce Vavrek has picked selections from diary entries, articles and essays, travel writing and journalism, and turned them into a cantata or song-cycle. A series of fragments roughly follows the few plot points of her career from a death in the family via an exhilarating voyage, fascination with Islam and a love affair to her own death seven years later in flash flood. Told from the point of view of Isabelle’s final moments, the opera becomes increasingly abstract, inhabiting her thoughts and emotions more than following the external details of her life. Director Ann Hodges demonstrates a very clear concept for this opera, but it is nevertheless useful to know some background in advance.

Composer and librettist have left set and stage action entirely up to the creative team presenting the opera. The design team of Wlad Woyno & Katayoon Yousefbigloo have created projections of abstract, flowing shapes and colours, making clever use of scrims. They have clearly taken their inspiration from music and text, but for me the projections did little to enhance or elucidate either. Even a wonderful, uplifting sail shape seemed too literal in the context. Costumes by Alaia Hamer by contrast were loose and neutral and worked well. And Alexandra Caprara's lighting set the shifting moods well.

The chorus, the band, and, above all, Marion Newman in the title role made for a remarkable performance. The band in an unusual combination of electric guitar, piano, flute clarinet and bass plus some electronic sounds, played with passionate enthusiasm and energy under the watchful baton of Gordon Gerrard. An ensemble of 5 singers served as a Greek chorus supporting Isabelle, sometimes literally. Sensitive choreography by Livona Ellis helped the group to change character as mourners, partiers, assassins, lovers and more. Beautiful tone, clear diction, a sharp intelligence, but above all warmth made Marion Newman an outstanding heroine.

The music creates a richly lyrical, all-enveloping world of constantly returning motifs, surprising electronic interplay, interest and tenderness, and is supremely sympathetic with Eberhardt's text. Isabelle Eberhardt was a brave and unconventional woman. In bringing her back to life Missy Mazzoli has made her an example for our own times.


© 2024 Elizabeth Paterson