Song from the Uproar: The Lives and Deaths of Isabelle Eberhardt
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Song from the Uproar: The Lives and Deaths of Isabelle Eberhardt

LOS ANGELES
LA Opera
10/8/15

MULTIMEDIA EVENTS HAVE INCREASINGLY become a central element in contemporary musical projects. In Los Angeles, outside the Walt Disney Concert Hall envisioned by Frank Gehry, virtual reality headsets are made available to listeners on the street: a vehicle called the Van-Beethoven allows them to travel into the music that is being performed inside, providing access to a three-dimensional view of the Philharmonic. It should not come as a surprise, then, that right next door at the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater (REDCAT) Missy Mazzoli’s chamber opera Song from the Uproar: The Lives and Deaths of Isabelle Eberhardt recently had its west coast premiere (seen Oct. 8) in a presentation by LA Opera. The score for this piece effectively combines manipulated film, projections, electronics, digitally encoded sound, and a small ensemble visible at the back of the set through a series of transparent curtains. 

Mazzoli’s opera is based on the biography of Isabelle Eberhardt (1877-1904), an intriguing figure who, during her short life, relentlessly challenged the cultural expectations of her time. Raised in an anarchist household, Eberhardt and her mother moved to North Africa and converted to Islam. Si Mahmoud Saadi—her new name—returned to France several times, but her location of preference was Algeria, where she dressed as a man, fell in love with a soldier, enjoyed hashish, joined a Sufi order, and according to some, worked as a spy. (An attempt to kill her failed, and she forgave the attacker.) She wrote newspaper reports, journals, short stories, and novels before dying—during a flash flood—at the age of twenty-seven. 

This production underlines the fragmentary nature of Eberhardt’s legacy from the start: while taking their seats, the audience can see several texts projected onto the stage, including the date and place of Eberhardt’s death, and a list of the objects found around her body, many of which were to be either presented or alluded to later during the opera. The libretto offers a series of cumulative moments (her arrival in Africa, her religious transformation, the betrayal of her lover, among others). Any of these scenes would have been a highlight in a more traditional opera, but Mazzoli wisely prefers to unfold them as a sequence of dots that are gradually connected by the elastic, flexible pulsations of her score.

Mazzoli mobilizes traces of Philip Glass and Steve Reich in order to create a lyrical realm dominated by a consistent reference to the fluidity of water. The leanings of Eberhardt’s narrative are not entirely devoid of Orientalist undertones, but Mazzoli and her co-librettist Royce Vavrek are less interested in exotic colors or tensions than in depicting Isabelle’s emotional journey into an internal space in which dreams and desires overlap and emerge. Stephen Taylor has transformed early examples of film into haunting sequences in which bodies behave like ghosts, an effect that emphasizes the inward, occasionally eerie quality of the music. As choreographed by Gia Forakis, the five members of the chorus stood for the multiple voices that inhabit Isabelle; on opening night, their movements were sometimes hesitant and slightly disorienting. 

Mezzo-soprano Abigail Fisher performed Isabelle with great delicacy and refinement of detail; she conveyed quite convincingly, both vocally and physically, Isabelle’s trance in front of a reality that ended surpassing her own imagination. Nevertheless, in spite of the richness of her experience, Isabelle remains distant, and fundamentally self-absorbed. Less visceral than Mohhamed Fairouz’s Sumeida’s Song, and not as passionate as Osvaldo Golijov’s Ainadamar, Song from the Uproar manages to invent a self-contained world full of enticing perspectives and perplexing questions. —Leo Cabranes-Grant 

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