Monday, October 12, 2015

Douglas Messerli | "Glimpses of a Vaster Landscape" (on Missy Mazzoli's opera Song from the Uproar)

glimpses of a vaster landscape
by Douglas Messerli

Missy Mazzoli and Royce Vavrek (libretto), Missy Mazzoli (composer) Song from the Uproar: The lives and Deaths of Isabelle Eberhardt / Los Angeles, Redcat (The Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater) / the performance Howard Fox and I attended was a matinee on Sunday, October 11, 2015

In her program notes for her short opera Song from the Uproar: The Lives and Deaths of Isabelle Eberhardt, composer Missy Mazzoli briefly describes her subject as being born in Geneva, Switzerland in 1877, who—after the death of her father, mother and brother—traveled alone to Algeria, dressed as a man. Once there, the short synopsis, continues she “joined a Sufi order, roamed the desert on horseback and fell in love with an Algerian soldier. After surviving an attempted assassination and a failed suicide pact with her lover, Isabelle drowned in a desert flash flood at age 27.” The composer suggests that we have only a few short stories, articles, and fragments from the journals that survived the flood to help us comprehend this “fearless” woman, and, accordingly, she “felt that an opera about her life should be similarly fragmented—an evocation of her dreams and thoughts rather than a straightforward narrative.”

    The opera Mazzoli has created consists of 17 short songs, using repeated phrases found in the surviving pages of Eberhardt’s journal, along with highly stylized and synchronic mime-like gestures and dance movements by the 5 chorus members (meant, evidently, to represent the various personas of Eberhardt), along with film clips that reinforce any thematic content presented, and a five-man ensemble of double bass, electric guitar, clarinet and bass clarinet, piano, and flute and piccolo.

     The film clips, sorry to say, are rather prosaic images taken from images of Eberhardt as a child and adult, as well as, what might be expected, a floating, drowning woman. The dance movements, while often well-executed, often seem superfluous, as if they are merely there to bring some motion into the otherwise quite static opera; sometimes it appears, almost, as if the figures were executing some unreadable sign language. The libretto, based on the fragments of Eberhardt’s journal, poetically rendered by Mazzoli and Royce Vavrek, certainly do not precisely tickle the ear as much as representing a kind of list of associated words:

Sight, smell, taste, touch
songs, hymns, verses, silence, refrains,
the sound, the noise, the voice,
sixty-five names for God.
Prime, odd, even, addition.
Units, miles, bolded lines.
Circle, square, exponential.
Square, fence.
Prison, embrace, remembrance.

At other times, as in the short paean to our hero’s independence “I Have Arrived,” seem almost as banal as a popular ditty:

I have arrived -
I'll pick out my own song,
a music that will bleed the heart into
I have arrived -
I'll pick out my own song,
line by line, and at last
throw back my head and sing.

And many of the recitative-like pronouncements are almost indistinguishable from one another.

      What makes this chamber opera remarkable is Mazzoli’s beautifully shimmering, ethereal, and sometimes electric-guitar-whining score performed by excellent Mezzo-Soprano Abigail Fischer. Reminiscent, at moments, of John Adams, and, for a few instants, of John Zorn, Mazzoli’s music is the crucial element that encouraged the sold-out audience with whom I attended the event to thoroughly embrace this hour and one-half work, imbuing Song from the Uproar with a glorious sense of uplift that isn’t quite matched by the rest of its parts.
     In truth, Eberhardt was the daughter not of her mother’s wealthy husband, General Pavel de Moerder, but of the family’s tutor, Alexandre Trophimowsky, a former priest and anarcrist, who taught his daughter and her brother French, Russian, Italian, Latin, Greek, and, eventually, classical Arabic. Trophimowsky encouraged the young girl to read the Koran, while looking the other way when she, from early on, dressed as a sailor boy. At an early age Eberhardt begin to write stories—including one about male homosexuality.
     Even before traveling to Algeria, she corresponded regularly with her half-brother, Augustin, who had joined the French Foreign Legion, encouraging him to keep and share with her a detailed diary of what he saw and experienced in North Africa, while also corresponding with a French officer, Eugène Letord, who was stationed in the Sahara. Soon after her writings, written under a male pseudonym, spoke out strongly against colonialism.

     Invited by the Algerian-French photographer, Louis David, to visit him in Algeria, she and her mother traveled to North Africa, living with the Davids. Despite their hosts’ disapproval, both she and her mother spent long hours with local Arabs, both mother and daughter converting to Islam, and, eventually, moving out of the French neighborhood to live in an Arabic-style house. 
      It was not simply that Eberhardt dressed like a man, but that she dressed in burnous and turban like an Arab man that made her a social pariah to the French settlers. Her mother did not die in Switzerland, as Mazzoli suggests, but in Algeria, and was buried as Fatma Mannoubia.

      Meanwhile, Eberhardt continued to practice the Muslim religion—despite her attraction to alcohol and drugs—and, in later years, made contact with a Sufi order, the Qadiriyya, whose leader permitted to engage in that order’s secret rites.
       In the last years of the 19th century, because of family deaths and her inheritance of the family villa, Eberhardt was forced to return to Europe, becoming determined to travel to Paris to seek out a career as a writer. 
      There, by chance, she met the widow of the Marquis de Morès, whose husband had been killed by Tuareg tribesman in the Sahara. She paid for Eberhardt to return to North Africa in order to search out the cause of his death, an offer which the adventurer could not resist, even if she did actually pursue that quest.
       During this trip she met the Algerian soldier Slimane Ehnni; the two fell in love, but were disallowed by the French colonial government to marry. Indeed by this time the French rulers, not only outraged by her dress and behavior, suspected her of being involved in espionage, which may have been the cause of her attempted assassination by a man with a sabre. Today she would surely be seen as a terrorist.
     The government also arranged to reassign Ehnni to another region, which brought about Eberhardt’s failed suicide attempt. Forced again to return to France, Eberhardt lived with her brother Augustin and his wife, working with her brother, she in male dress, as a dock laborer.  

      Eberhardt and Ehnni finally married when her lover was reassigned to Marseilles, returning to Algeria as French citizens to live with Ehnni’s family. When the couple relocated to Algiers, a newspaper editor hired her to report on the Battle of El-Moungar. There, while staying with members of the French Foreign Legion, she met and befriended Hubert Lyautey, the French officer placed in charge of Oran, and it is generally acknowledged that she may have some spying for Lyautey.
      Weakened by fever, Eberhardt headed for Aïn Sefra, and requested Ehnni, whom she had not seen for several months, to join her. It is there, during a flash flood that the great adventurer died, her husband surviving.
      Despite Mazzoli’s claim that we have only a few stories and her journal with which to piece together Eberhardt’s life, at least 13 books written by her have been published since her death, including the full fiction, Trimardeur
     Eberhardt’s larger-than-life adventures reveal her as a figure more like T.E. Lawrence than the slightly disconcerted proto-feminist that this opera represents her to be. In short, Song from the Uproar’s creators have done a disservice to their subject with their presentation of a few fragmentary, poetically rendered songs which cast her adventures in the form of a chamber-work instead of what it longs to be—a grand opera, with or without narrative coherency. 
    One can only hope that, at some point, Mazzoli applies her obvious musical talent to a work of greater depth and grander vision.

Los Angeles, October 12, 2015

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