Missy Mazzoli: Song from the Uproar: The Lives and Deaths of Isabelle Eberhardt
New Amsterdam Records

Missy Mazzoli's Song from the Uproar: The Lives and Deaths of Isabelle Eberhardt is the latest in an exceptional series of recordings from NY-based New Amsterdam Records. Conceived in collaboration with filmmaker Stephen Taylor, director Gia Forakis, and librettist Royce Vavrek and available as an original cast recording featuring mezzo-soprano Abigail Fischer, Now Ensemble, and a vocal quintet consisting of Celine Mogielnicki (soprano), Amelia Watkins (soprano), Kate Maroney (alto), Tomas Cruz (tenor), and Peter Stewart (baritone), Mazzoli's first opera is somewhat reminiscent in overall design of Sarah Kirkland Snider's Penelope, with both being chamber vocal works of ravishing melodic character and narrative design. Mazzoli, incidentally, is not only a composer but also a pianist and keyboardist who performs with Victoire, whose debut full-length CD, Cathedral City, was issued by New Amsterdam in 2010.

Anyone vaguely familiar with Isabelle Eberhardt (1877-1904) might know of the tumultuous life she led. In encapsulated form, she left Switzerland at the age of twenty following the deaths of her mother, brother, and father for an adventurous and nomadic life in the deserts of North Africa. She dressed as a man, calling herself Si Mahmoud Essadi so as to be able to travel in Arab society, became a Sufi, and then fell in love with an Algerian soldier, Slimene Ehnni, after moving to Africa, and married him in 1901, before ultimately drowning in flash flood in the desert at twenty-seven. Mazzoli's score makes full use of the emotional and dramatic potential of the story as it follows the many twists and turns of her life. The material often possesses a tone of desperation, anguish, and yearning—not surprising, perhaps, given the title character's tragically short life. During “The Hunted,” Eberhardt herself seems aware of her fate in giving voice to lines such as, “I am inching towards an abyss / The assassin's prey / I am the hunted,” though even here she's defiant (“With faith and pride intact / My soul tempered, I am not weakened”). In the penultimate song, “Mektoub (It is Written), Part One: O Capsized Heart,” we find her resigned to her fate and accepting of death: “Death is familiar, death is my companion / Guide me to oblivion...”

The instrumental support contributed by the Now Ensemble to the recording lends it remarkable distinction. Pianist Michael Mizrahi (whose issued his own impressive collection, The Bright Motion, earlier in 2012), clarinetist Sara Budde, and flutist Alexandra Sopp leave especially memorable fingerprints on the recording, though double bassist Logan Coale and guitarist Mark Dancigers make their presence felt, too. In the absence of vocals, “Oblivion Seekers” becomes an impassioned showcase for the ensemble players' versatility. During an instrumental interlude, we hear seagulls, a boat's creaking hull and bells, with clarinet and distant voices providing instrumental colour. Coale also has a powerful solo spotlight that finds him coiling his hypnotic lines around the vocalist's equally entrancing performance. If anything, Song from the Uproar is as much a Now Ensemble showcase as it is one for the vocalists. The vocal dimension of the recording shouldn't be downplayed, however, as Mazzoli's composed a score that offers its singers, mezzo-soprano Abigail Fischer and a vocal quintet, an incredibly fertile playground within which to play. Much of the work's emotional impact rests on Fischer's shoulders, of course, but it's a challenge she more than meets.

Emotive wordless vocalizing by baritone Peter Stewart and alto Kate Maroney dominates the haunting, scene-setting overture, their expressions heard amidst atmospheric crackle, Mizrahi's staccato piano chords, and Budde's clarinet. In the subsequent piece, Fischer enters, her vibrato-heavy voice conveying the desperation of a woman left to make her way alone in the world after the loss of her family. The accompanying vocalists function as a Greek chorus of sorts, commenting on the action during those pieces when Fischer's absent. “I Am Not Mine” revisits the sound design of the overture, the crackling now joined by Eberhardt's emotional outpouring as she sings of the selflessness brought on by faith. “Here Where Footprints Erase the Graves” is a suitably mournful closer, given Eberhardt's imminent death, though even here she's at peace, singing “a tranquil heart is mine.”

A John Adams influence emerges at times, with a few sequences in Mazzoli's work calling to mind certain plaintive passages in his work. Like Adams, Mazzoli possesses a startlingly original imagination plus superb command of vocal-and-instrumental interplay. His presence is felt during “100 Names for God” in complex vocal passages that sometimes assert themselves with an almost military force and in the mournful passage (“tears of sadness / tears of joy”) that calls to mind the similarly mournful vocal passages in The Death of Klinghoffer and even perhaps Pat Nixon's moving aria in Nixon in China. (Mazzoli also lists as influences Philip Glass, David Lang, Michael Gordon, and Julia Wolfe as well as Beethoven, Schumann, Schubert.)

Vocally and instrumentally, the performance proves to be a mesmerizing experience for the ears, with so much physical music packed into the piece one's attention never has a moment to drift. In doing so, the material captures the adventurous spirit and unquenchable appetite of the titular protagonist. The project is timed well, too, at sixty-five minutes long: long enough to be a full-scale work but not so long it becomes daunting—it's no four-hour, Wagner-styled epic, in other words. Song from the Uproar is the latest in what's, frankly, been a rather staggering run for the New Amsterdam label. Every one of its recent album releases has, it seems, been a standout and Mazzoli's is no exception.

December 2012