Ellen West Recording Review
RICKY IAN GORDON is adept at writing orchestrations that are at once accessible and enigmatic. But it’s when he scales down his music dramas to fit a chamber-music setting that he most directly conveys profound and personal truths about the human experience through sound. This was evident on the recording of the poignant and intimate Your Clear Eye, the debut album for soprano Jennifer Zetlan, consisting of songs by Gordon. The singer and composer resume their collaboration on this live Prototype Festival recording of the opera Ellen West, in which Zetlan portrays the eponymous character.
It tells a deeply personal story about an early-twentieth-century woman whose dire struggles with body image and anorexia were evidence of a deep existential crisis. Her case became a focal point of clinical psychoanalysis—among the earliest historical examples of such study—for her psychiatrist, Dr. Ludwig Binswanger. Billed as “an operatic poem,” the work alternates between Dr. Binswanger’s reports on his patient and the imagined poetry of West, as invented by librettist Frank Bidart. Here, West is contemptuous of her own body. Her fear of and disdain for food are merely a symptom of a much more fundamental problem of identity: West seeks in her mind an idealized reality in which she has no body.
As a result, eating and maintaining a healthy weight lead her further astray from achieving her goal. She also feels the added societal pressure imposed on her by her gender, which, at best, she treats with ambivalence. Bidart effectively encapsulates Ellen’s complex, entangled internal conflicts early in the opera, during the scene “I like sweets.” About her husband, she says, “He married meat and thought it was a wife.”
Zetlan’s performance is captivating. She attacks the melodies with a frantic energy that mirrors West’s desperation. The soprano is clearly comfortable with the elements of tragic theater, as she demonstrates with a versatile fach that falls somewhere between lyric and dramatic. She summons powerful tone with ease but can easily pull back to articulate subtle and sudden dynamic changes that require great vocal control. The emotion of the opera’s story and Zetlan’s ability to convey that emotion reach their zenith in the epic aria “Callas is my favorite singer,” in which Ellen insightfully dissects her own downward-spiraling existence by drawing a meta analogy to the career trajectory of famed opera star Maria Callas: “Does her soul tell her that she was an idiot ever to think anything material wholly could satisfy?”
Baritone Nathan Gunn is more than solid as Dr. Binswanger, with a clear, empathetic timbre, but Ellen West is a powerhouse vehicle for the soprano. The two singers are accompanied admirably by the Aeolus Quartet—violinists Nicholas Tavani and Rachel Shapiro, violist Caitlin Lynch and cellist Alan Richardson—with double bassist Evan Premo and pianist Djordje Nesic, conducted by Lidiya Yankovskaya.
The most striking quality of the music, from the outset, is the pervasive sense of melancholy. Gordon writes with an omnipresent legato—not just from note to note within a given phrase but from phrase to phrase. One might think that this fluidity would be at odds with the lack of tangible resolution in the harmonies, but these paradoxical elements result in musical storytelling that’s both unsettling and enthralling.
—Daniel J. Kushner