Ellen West: Opera News, July 2019

Opera News

Ellen West Review

Opera Saratoga artistic and general director Lawrence Edelson honors the company’s ongoing commitment to contemporary work. July 12 brought the third performance of Ellen West, a world premiere coproduction with Beth Morrison Projects that opened on June 30. A fine, haunting chamber score by the chameleonic Ricky Ian Gordon inscribes with considerable skill a harrowing poem by Frank Bidart about an early known victim of bulimia and her treatment by a contemporary of Freud. The piece has in common with Mozart and Salieri its close relation to a pre-existing literary work, its long framing preface by the baritone (this was a “doctor’s note” Bidart added to his librettic expansion of the poem) and its deployment of just two characters to generate drama. Unlike in the Rimsky or Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle, the two singers here (the pseudonymic patient in a Swiss sanatorium, played by Jennifer Zetlan, and her doctor, played by Keith Phares, who also functions as her husband and a narrator) almost never actually interact musically or even spatially, posing challenges that were imaginatively met by Emma Griffin’s fluid direction. Not only body image but gender norms and life’s existential challenges are explored.

Zetlan and Phares offered telling portraits notable for scrupulous emotional detail and exemplary vivid diction. Zetlan’s soprano ideally blended girlish vulnerability with expressive bite, while Phares’s mellifluous baritone sounded rock-solid even in his flights into head voice. Lidiya Yankovskaya firmly (and with monitor-facilitated balance with the stage) led a violin-dominated chamber orchestra. The score’s sections proceed in “beats” sometimes punctuated by lighting cues, along with chimes sounded by Ellen or the Orderlies, played by two balletically gifted Young Artists, Penelope Kendros and Nicholas Martorano, who were added by Griffin as witnesses/enactors/embodiments of Ellen. One tricky if fascinating section of Bidart’s poem—obviously ahistorical in relation to the actual “Ellen West”—has her discussing Maria Callas’s trajectory with weight issues and career. This was the only scene staged with patient and doctor in a face-to-face. Here Gordon, who earlier refers almost imperceptibly to the Guillaume Tell overture’s Ranz des vaches in introducing the Helvetian setting, quotes too repeatedly from “Casta Diva” and Tosca. These allusions might furnish “entry hooks” for audiences less receptive to contemporary scores, but such sampling of established, iconic masterworks is dangerous turf. Less would achieve more. An epilogue or final “beat,” in which the soprano and baritone voices finally resound and curl together in harmony, introduces rapturous text ( “Earth, O fecund thou”) from another Bidart poem, “Hymn,” providing a memorable ending to a challenging but rewarding work, with its own musicodramatic tinta.

—David Shengold