Prototype: Ellen West Gets Its NY Debut,
More polished, Ricky Ian Gordon’s Ellen West—a setting of a 1977 poem by Frank Bidart— opened at the GK Arts Center on January 14 and shows the benefits of a single vision and more experienced creative team. Bidart’s compelling text, which Gordon sets in its entirety, is based on Ludwig Binswanger’s case study “Der Fall Ellen West,” an early analysis of a patient suffering from what we would now call anorexia nervosa. The poem takes the form of a dramatic monologue for West intercut with prose commentary from Binswanger. For Gordon’s operatic version, Bidart has framed his original text with a prologue and epilogue in which collectively the analyst, poet, and composer explain that bringing Ellen West into being has been a form of exorcism (in a program note Gordon reveals how he was initially drawn to the poem during a particularly dark period in his life).
With his natural gift for optimism, and approachable, lyrical style, Gordon dots this uncompromising story with beauty, a flickering hope, and occasionally even humor. There are even cleverly woven references to Tosca in an extended passage on the subject of Maria Callas and her well-documented issues with body image. Scored for piano sextet (piano, bass, and string quartet), the music can be gritty, thorny even, spiked with nagging pizzicato and brittle piano lines. But it can also be intensely lyrical, as in the radiant music reserved for the account of West’s apparent apotheosis and tragic suicide that blossoms with an aching tenderness tinged with deep regret.
West was a complex case. “I love sweets,” she declares optimistically, “but my true self is thin, all profile and effortless gestures, the sort of blond elegant girl whose body is the image of her soul.” Her attempts to sculpt herself to conform to this ideal are unsparingly recalled—the laxatives, the vomiting, the sewing of ballast into her clothing to fool the doctors that she isn’t losing weight. But the poem is also about more fundamental issues of identity, the inherent tension between “art” and “nature,” and the (perhaps) ultimate futility of the former to corral the latter.
Jennifer Zetlan’s portrayal of Ellen is brilliantly executed, the voice wide-raging, powerful and displaying considerable tonal variety. With her sly, brittle smile and angry outbursts she certainly captures the judgmental side of West, the disgust, the sense of loathing and self-deprecation. What is missing in her portrayal, perhaps, is a fuller exploration of the vulnerability beneath the text’s surface. Nathan Gunn’s Binswanger brings plenty of that into play, his warm, slightly fraying baritone capturing the elderly analyst’s sense of uncertainty, frustration, and ultimately remorse.
While the poem never becomes a dialogue, Emma Griffin’s fluent staging conveys a decent sense of West’s experiences in the environs of Binswanger’s clinic. Lidiya Yankovskaya’s musical direction is an equal partner, lending the piece plenty of emotional weight and dramatic tension. A co-production with Opera Saratoga, where it premiered last summer, and Beth Morrison Productions, Ellen West is a fascinating work that looks set to achieve a wider circulation.
– Clive Paget, Musical America, 16 January 2020