Ricky Ian Gordon and Frank Bidart’s Ellen West, given it’s New York City premiere as part of the 2020 Prototype Festival, paints a complex, affecting picture of a suffering woman whose mental state is unraveling.
“Why am I a girl?” sings Ellen West in Frank Bidart’s haunting, provocative, poetic libretto for Ellen West, which had its New York City premiere on January 14 at Brooklyn’s Gelsey Kirkland Arts Center, as part of the 2020 Prototype Festival. Composer Ricky Ian Gordon’s seventy-five-minute opera, scored for two singers and chamber orchestra, was a coproduction between Beth Morrison Projects and Opera Saratoga, where it received its world premiere in July.
Gordon was inspired to create an opera from Bidart’s poem Ellen West, published in a 1990 collection. Bidart’s poem was based, in part, on psychologist Ludwig Binswanger’s “Der Fall Ellen West,” a case study about a thirty-two-year-old woman in a Swiss hospital in the 1930s, who was suffering from an eating disorder before such a diagnosis existed. The opera includes a prologue and epilogue, created specifically for the opera by Bidart. The libretto’s lyrics focus on food, femininity, the body and beauty. Ellen’s monologues are strikingly obsessive: she spends an entire scene recalling a dinner she ate next to a couple, whose relationship sickens and depresses her, especially in the way they fed one another off the other’s fork. Director Emma Griffin made striking use of Ellen’s simple clothing; throughout the opera, Ellen continuously dresses and undresses herself, always in and out of a variation on the same pink hospital gown. At last, before her suicide, Ellen puts on all the dresses at once, so that she appears significantly fatter; near the end of the opera, Ellen strips herself completely naked.
Gordon’s music captures the tumultuous emotions of the libretto. The vocal lines are at times punchy, then achingly simple; the instrumentation sometimes becomes so frantic that it sounds like a first-rate thriller score. Gordon’s score, in particular its solo moments for Ellen, paints a complex picture of a suffering woman whose mental state is unraveling; his attention to text allowed Bidart’s poetry to shine.
Soprano Jennifer Zetlan gave a committed performance as the unstable, tormented Ellen, sounding strikingly at home in the music of Gordon, with whom she collaborated on the 2018 album Your Clear Eye. Zetlan embodied Ellen’s vulnerability in moments of vivid introspection as well as her frantic agony. In one therapy session, in which Ellen delivers a monologue about Maria Callas, weight and Tosca, Zetlan personified the somber situation of a mentally ill woman born both in the wrong time and as the wrong sex.
Nathan Gunn began the opera as the character of Frank the Poet, providing the background notes on Ellen the tormented woman; he then transformed into Dr. Binswanger, in order to interact with Ellen the patient; he then was Ellen’s husband. The speech-like quality of Gunn’s voice in his midrange was effective at conveying the intensity of the words, especially those of Frank the Poet. His role, though less demanding than Zetlan’s, focused the audience’s empathy, and provided stylistic breaks from Ellen’s intervals of high intensity.
Lidiya Yankovskaya conducted the Aeolus Quartet with passion: the ensemble played behind a scenery window, and was visible through the mullions. Quite a bit of the stage action in Ellen West played off to the side, including most of the work of two unnamed actors whose jerky body movements were meant to mirror Ellen’s inner anguish. I wish more of the opera had been staged at center, and that the music and the stage movement had been linked more directly: outside the use of chimes onstage to signify shifts in time, sudden mood changes in the music had no seeming effect on the characters.