BWW Review: SONG FROM THE UPROAR a co-production by concert:nova and Cincinnati Opera makes history
Cincinnati's concert:nova has just wrapped its 10th season with a collaboration with Cincinnati Opera: Song from the Uproar, a new opera by composer Missy Mazzoli and librettist Royce Vavrek. Described as "an exciting performance group that stands at the intersection of visionary performances and innovative cultural engagement," concert:nova's intention is to put an ensemble of artists at the helm and see if their collaborations can take classical music to new places. Concert:nova has certainly taken opera in Cincinnati to a new place since Song from the Uproar is the first opera in Cincinnati Opera's 97-year history that was composed by a woman.
Song from the Uproar tells the story of Isabella Eberhardt, the true-life Victorian adventurer. Orphaned at the age of 21, she travelled from her birthplace, Switzerland, to the deserts of Algeria. While still a teenager, Eberhardt would often dress as a man and publish short stories under a male pseudonym. While in Algeria, she infiltrated the male-dominant world, eventually living as an Arabic man and calling herself Si Mahmoud Saadi. She angered the French settlers in Algeria by living as she wished: taking many lovers, converting to a Sufi order of Islam, and living openly with an Algerian soldier. Her life was endlessly interesting and involved love-fueled suicide pacts, assassination attempts, and murder investigations, but it ended in disease (possibly syphilis). Her death occurred at the tender age of 27 by drowning in a flash flood. Luckily, she left behind journals describing her experiences.
The sold-out Song from the Uproar is the first time concert:nova has collaborated with the Cincinnati Opera since 2012's Maria de Buenos Aires (which was sold out as well). Founded in 1920 and described as a "festival," Cincinnati Opera has a very short season, producing only four shows in June and July. But, it is touted as "Cincinnati's 'prime summer arts festival,' attracting a passionate regional audience as well as opera tourists from throughout the U.S. and Canada."
Unfortunately, this performance wasn't exactly my cup of tea. If it was supposed to be an examination of a woman's life, I wasn't quite sure what it was examining. It was more like a fragmented retelling of events (almost a laundry list put to music) and was staged by director Marco Pelle in a way that distracted more than it supported.
The ambiguity of the piece could be what Pelle's misguided staging was trying to make up for. The set was composed of six blank, white curtains (that the actors would noisily rearrange for seemingly no reason), and a giant and inexplicable tree trunk placed stage left. The movement of the characters was balletic, sometimes beautiful, and often abstract. But, the symbolism and the reduction of movement to "pure expression" through choreography didn't make up for a lack of a clear story, but obfuscated it even more. I found myself looking for the symbolism in everything just to find a thread, and ended up with more questions. Why is everyone climbing that tree? Why are they moving those curtains?
The costumes by Rebecca Senske, didn't help to clarify anything for me either. They were vaguely North African and flowy, perhaps symbolizing the flood of water that would eventually take Eberhardt's life. Unfortunately, the costuming took away from the true character of Isabella Eberhardt as her penchant for men's clothing was strangely erased. The soft, slit-to-the-hip of her flowing pants and waist-accentuating belt, the wild mane of red hair, voluptuous top, all seemed to accentuate the femininity of the actress playing Eberhardt, rather than subdue it.
Because the music itself was complicated, driving, and intricate, I had moments where I wished I was simply listening to the piece concert-style, and therefore able to concentrate on the words and sounds. Abigail Fischer as Eberhardt (she originated the role) had a superb voice and a commanding presence. Mazzoli's music seemed to intensely focus on a certain strain, circling back in on itself again and again in a repetition akin to Sufi dhikr or perhaps whirling. Royce Vavrek's libretto was at times poetic, but often too vague to do justice to his incredibly interesting subject's life. But, his ambiguity was intentional, and according to Mazzoli's note in the program it was "an evocation of her dreams and thoughts rather than a straightforward narrative." But, in my experience, dreams are usually only interesting to the people who have them. It is the application of those dreams to a person's messy life, the nitty-gritty details, that interest us.
But there was more to this piece than just the staging, costumes, or my opinions on the libretto. The room was packed with appreciative opera fans experiencing a first. I mentioned to my elderly neighbor that this was the first opera composed by a woman to ever be produced by Cincinnati Opera. She said back to me something along the lines of, "Well I guess women don't really write operas." I had to bite my tongue. This was a necessary step forward for the Cincinnati arts scene and kudos to Cincinnati Opera and concert:nova for taking it.
Cincinnati Opera and concert:nova are both finished with their seasons for the summer, but will soon happily be back with more. The 2018 season marks the Opera's much anticipated return to Cincinnati's recently renovated Music Hall. Its season includes old favorites such as La Traviata and The Flying Dutchman, and new work such as Another Brick in the Wall which enjoyed a sold-out world-premiere in Montreal. And, yes, it is based on the iconic 1979 rock opera The Wall, by Pink Floyd. Concert:nova's website has no events listed yet, but I will certainly be checking back. I hope they keep pushing the envelope and exposing Cincinnati to a wider range of experiences.
Go to concert:nova's website for more info: http://concertnova.com/
Go to Cincinnati Opera's website for more info: http://www.cincinnatiopera.org/
109: Isabelle Eberhardt (Abigail Fischer) searches for the divine in Cincinnati Opera's production of Missy Mazzoli and Royce Vavrek's Song from the Uproar. Photo by Philip Groshong.