Mazzoli’s “Uproar” makes noise with impressive music, charismatic singer at Chicago Fringe Opera
Chicago is currently awash in debut operas by major young composers staged by upstart companies. Third Eye Theatre Ensemble is presenting Nico Muhly’s Dark Sisters, which runs through November 6. And Friday night Chicago Fringe Opera gave the Chicago premiere of Missy Mazzoli’s Song from the Uproar at the Preston Bradley Center.
Fringe Opera scoring a striking success with their performances of Philip Glass’s In the Penal Colony last spring. Compared to the claustrophobic gallery for that show, the wide fourth-floor space at the Uptown venue must have seemed like the Met.
Premiered in 2012 in New York, Song from the Uproar tells of Isabelle Eberhardt, a Swiss journalist and explorer who lived from 1877-1904. Her short but packed life hits a Lotto Powerball of zeitgeist-friendly themes: a feminist pioneer and anti-colonial activist; a convert to Islam; and a woman who cross-dresses to pass as a man in Algeria. Add her debut published story written at 18 about necrophilia and her death in a flash flood at age 27, and the material was clearly impossible to resist for composer Mazzoli and librettist Royce Vavrek.
Yet most of Eberhardt’s colorful life is suggested elliptically rather than represented directly. Song from the Uproar is closer to an extended monodrama for a mezzo-soprano portraying the explorer, structured in a flowing series of vignettes depicting significant moments in Eberhardt’s life.
If the 75-minute work feels more like a series of quick musical snapshots rather than a coherent opera narrative, Mazzoli’s music is consistently impressive and often glorious. The composer’s new opera Breaking the Waves recently opened to rave reviews, and Mazzoli’s facility and confidence in writing for voices in a theatrical genre is immediately manifest.
Scored economically for mixed quintet (piano, flute, clarinet, electric guitar and double-bass), the music flows naturally and organically throughout the unbroken action. Mazzoli’s style is tonal yet spiced with a tart astringency, the vocal lines often haunting in their spare beauty. The composer also effectively reflects the Algerian milieu with febrile, muezzin-like vocal lines for the backing ensemble and electric guitar.
Much of the success of the evening was due to Emma Sorenson’s performance as Isabelle. A tall, striking and graceful presence, the young mezzo sang with an attractive, flexible voice and brought strong dramatic engagement throughout, from Isabelle’s joy at discovering Islam, to her pain and anger at a lover’s betrayal, and solace and resignation at her death (which the opera suggests was a suicide).
As with the company’s previous Glass production, Song from the Uproar was performed “in the round,” with rows of audience seating on either side of the room, projections at one end and a large stage scaffold at the other.
Director Amy Hutchison heads off visual monotony by effectively deploying Sorenson and five backing vocalist-actors (Ashley Armstrong, Leigh Folta, Cody Monta’Jarrett, Diana Stoic and Jonathan Zeng) and two sinuous dancers (Reesie Davis and Dedrick Gray). The energetic ensemble members appear in various guises, as soldiers, cafe habitues and assassins, even though it was not always clear who or what they were representing in the fast-moving action.
While the room’s decayed grandeur contributed its own atmospheric flavor, the acoustic is more effective for instruments than voices, and was not helped by sonic bleed-through from other music elsewhere in the building.
Conductor Catherine O’ Shaughnessy directed the music with care and precision, skillfully balancing instruments and ensemble voices (live and electronic), while bringing out Mazzoli’s pointillistic hues and effects. Apart from some jarringly out-of-tune bass playing, the five musicians acquitted themselves with distinction, pianist Tonia Miki in particular. The composer was on hand to share in the enthusiastic ovation.
Song from the Uproar will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday. chicagofringeopera.com
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