Ellen West: Musical America

I caught Ricky Ian Gordon’s Ellen West at this year’s Prototype Festival in New York, and for a dramatic setting of a fundamentally static 1977 poem by Frank Bidart it comes up even stronger on disc. Based on Ludwig Binswanger’s case study “Der Fall Ellen West,” an early attempt to psychoanalyze a woman suffering from what we would now call anorexia, the work is a two-hander for a doctor grappling to understand the complexities of a particularly troubled patient.

West was a complex case whose attempts to force her body to conform to an ideal involved the use of laxatives, vomiting, and sewing ballast into her clothing to fool her doctors into thinking she wasn’t losing weight. The poem’s tentacles reach way further than that, however, and Gordon’s adaptable melodies allied with a sensitive artistic soul prove perfect for exploring situation and emotion, while illuminating the story’s unanswered questions. Aside from his mastery of an instinctual dreamy lyricism, he peppers his stew with expressive musical vignettes, such as a scene underpinned by the chugging of a moving train, or a thorny monologue on the subject of Maria Callas and her well-documented issues with body image that cleverly incorporates quotes from Puccini’s Tosca.

Jennifer Zetlan makes a scintillating Ellen. Her bright, flexible soprano is full of power and she displays a canny engagement with the text. Nathan Gunn’s gritty baritone captures Binswanger’s fragile sense of uncertainty and ultimately remorse. Lidiya Yankovskaya’s punchy musical direction brings out Gordon’s multifaceted orchestrations and the opera has been beautifully captured live with minimal stage noise.