MISSY MAZZOLI: Song from the Uproar – The Lives and Deaths of Isabelle Eberhardt – Abigail Fischer, mezzo-sop./ NOW Ensemble/ Steven Osgood – New Amsterdam NWAM042, 65:00 [www.newamsterdamrecords.com] ****:
To sum this up from the New York Times review of the premiere: “In the story of Isabelle Eberhardt, a 19th-century Swiss adventuress who blazed a headstrong trail before perishing prematurely in Algeria at 27, there surely is a saga worthy of operatic treatment. Ererhardt learned Arabic, converted to Islam, dressed as a man to travel freely, survived an assassination attempt and died in a flash flood after saving her Algerian soldier husband from the same fate.”
The notes to this release also mention that her story is “relevant” to us today—how, I am not sure, as I doubt her excesses and her inherent tragedies are easily relatable to the common music listener on the street. What does prove interesting though is the sheer human drama that unfolds before us; everything seems to go wrong for this young girl, who searched and searched and kept running into roadblocks. Eberhardt (1877 – 1904) was well-educated, fluent in four languages and studied seven, and eventually converted to Islam, her interest in Africa being sparked by half-brother Augustin who joined the French Foreign Legion and was assigned to Algeria. She suffered the loss of most of her family, and after this spent the rest of her life in Northern Africa. The flood that killed her spared her husband from whom she was separated many times. George Sand-like, she dressed in men’s clothing, and was perhaps spared the more difficult elements of women in Islam, because of her association with the Sufis, who are in general not regarded as “pure” Islamicists. But her cover allowed her to roam around a society that she would not normally have access to, though there was an attempted assassination on her life which almost severed her arm, and she begged for the assailant’s life to be spared.
Missy Mazzoli is a young up-and-coming composer on the New York scene, which is often rather parochial in its concerns and tends to see things rather myopically, but in this case the hype is well-deserved. Her music is accessible, even easily so, and the clarinet/bass/electric guitar/piano/flute ensemble, rather redolent of her teacher Louis Andriessen, works well in this case, though again I get the feeling that this work must be seen to be fully appreciated as it is a “multimedia” opera that uses a lot of film, no doubt much of the music geared toward exploring that relationship as well as the purely dramatic aspects of the libretto. Musically speaking it still retains a lot of interest even in this soundtrack, wetting the appetite for the visual element, but not overpowering that aspect of the production.
It also makes one want to explore more about this tragedienne , and to gain a fuller understanding of not only her unusual and immersive tale, but about the times in which she lived that made such a thing possible to begin with. The production is fine, a little hard to read the print in the inside of the case [a frequent complaint recently, and not just from us seniors…Ed.], and the sound is a little garish but not offensive. Fascinating for sure, but more importantly, musically expressive and—well—relevant after all.