Wall Street Journal

‘Ellen West’ and ‘Hansel and Gretel’ Reviews: Food’s Cruel Torment

At Opera Saratoga, the world premiere of Ricky Ian Gordon’s riveting one-act about a woman with an eating disorder, and a confused, puppet-heavy production of Humperdinck’s fairy-tale opera.

by Heidi Waleson
July 8, 2019

Ricky Ian Gordon’s riveting one-act opera “Ellen West, ” recently given its world premiere by Opera Saratoga at the Spa Little Theater, depicts the savage struggle of a young woman whose eating disorder is a war to the death between her soul and her body. Through an unusually powerful fusion of music and poetry, the opera soars beyond the clinical details into the realm of existential dread, yet never loses sight of the suffering human being at its center. A cocommission with Beth Morrison Projects, “Ellen West” will come to New York City’s Prototype Festival in January 2020.

Frank Bidart’s long, eloquent poem “Ellen West” (1977) is based on the story of an actual patient (the name is a pseudonym) who was treated by the psychiatrist Ludwig Binswanger at his Swiss clinic for a few months in 1921. She was deemed incurable and discharged; days later, she took her own life. In the poem, the dry, clinical notes of the psychiatrist alternate with the fictional thoughts and stories of a more recent version of Ellen, which are recounted with vivid language and arresting imagery. Mr. Gordon’s opera sets the full text of the poem to music. It has two singers—The Poet/Dr. Binswanger (baritone Keith Phares) and Ellen West (soprano Jennifer Zetlan)—and the focused, unshowy music embraces the fluid, conversational style of the poem, heightening Ellen’s emotions with song and building the dramatic arc of each episode and of the whole. There are no extraneous musical gestures, and a small ensemble of string quartet, bass and piano preserves the opera’s intimate, extremely personal quality.

Each episode has a distinct musical temperature. Ellen’s description of a couple feeding each other in a restaurant becomes a frenzy of disgust; later, you feel her go rigid with anguish as she stares longingly at a half-chewed orange section on the floor of a train. The most powerful episode is about Maria Callas, whose dramatic weight loss, Ellen insists, was about truth in art: “All she was trying to express was obliterated by her body, buried in flesh….How her soul, uncompromising, insatiable, must have loved eating the flesh from her bones, revealing this extraordinarily mercurial; fragile; masterly creature.” Fragments of “Tosca” echo in Mr. Gordon’s orchestration as Ellen describes seeing the diva sing that role on stage and channels the soprano in her own desperate need to escape from her body.

Ms. Zetlan’s tour de force Ellen commanded unwavering attention; she was unafraid to edge her soprano into harshness for the sake of intensity. Mr. Phares’s lyric baritone imbued the doctor’s seemingly dispassionate comments with humanity. He was also the Poet in a prologue, written for the opera by Mr. Bidart, that adds yet another layer to the story; it explains, among other things, that the original poem was an exorcism “of that thing within Frank that wants to leave the earth, and does not want to leave the earth.” Lidiya Yankovskaya was the sensitive conductor.

The simple, elegant set—a consulting room with a divan and a large window that provided a glimpse of the orchestra behind—was by Laura Jellinek.Josh Epstein’s dramatic lighting changed with each episode, suffusing the room with tints like brilliant green and fervent magenta; Kaye Voyce’s costumes included multiple iterations of Ellen’s plain smock—she put on a new one for each scene, and wore them all together when she left the clinic. For the most part, Emma Griffin’s capable direction made Ellen’s inner life visible. However, the actions of the two silent Orderlies (Nicholas Martorano and Penelope Kendros), who seemed to be projections of Ellen’s mind, were not always comprehensible.