Missy Mazzoli, Song from the Uproar (The Lives and Deaths of Isabelle Eberhardt)

Richard Gehr

By Richard Gehr

on 12.04.12 in Reviews

Young Brooklyn composer Missy Mazzoli’s exhilarating and ultimately heartbreaking Song from the Uproar contains traditional operatic elements – among them, romance, tragedy and cross-dressing. However, the story of the real-life Isabelle Eberhardt (1877-1904), who traveled nomadically through the mountains and deserts of North Africa dressed as a man, converted to Islam, and joined a secret Sufi brotherhood to struggle against French colonialism before perishing in a flash flood, strains against the bounds of belief. Does this tale demand three tidily arcing acts or a thousand and one nights?

Splitting the difference between opera and alt-rock

Mazzoli’s solution is to concentrate on the heaviest emotional moments of Eberhardt’s journey in 15 songs linked by electronic sounds. Performed by the five-member Now Ensemble (clarinet, bass, electric guitar, piano, flute), four singers and the splendid mezzo-soprano Abigail Fischer as Eberhardt, Uproar splits the difference between opera and alt-rock. (Mazzoli’s all-female modern classical ensemble Victoire was a 2008 eMusic Selects pick.) Melodic and other epiphanies bubble up unexpectedly and dramatically from Mazzoli’s personal minimalist palette. These include the birdlike flute song of delight in “I Have Arrived,” the heady instrumental color wheel of “Oblivion Seekers,” and perhaps the opera’s real tragic climax, the two-part “Mektoub (It Is Written),” a lacerating threnody in which Eberhardt mourns the betrayal of her Algerian lover, singing “How quickly love evaporates / Leaving me a desert.” Not so much opera as distillation, Mazzoli’s version of Eberhardt’s short, memorable life is a marvel of compact complexity itself.