Ricky Ian Gordon: Ellen West
Jennifer Zetlen, Nathan Gunn (voices), et al; Aeolus Quartet (Bright Shiny Things)
Ricky Ian Gordon
Jennifer Zetlen, Nathan Gunn (voices), Djordje Nesic (piano), Evan Primo (double bass); Aeolus Quartet
Bright Shiny Things BSTC-0139 72:56 mins
Madness – and especially the mad woman – has long been an operatic trope. But Ellen West was a real person: a patient of the existential analyst Ludwig Binswanger, she committed suicide in 1921. In 1977, Frank Bidart gave her tormented voice in a confessional poem, which composer Ricky Ian Gordan has turned into a chamber opera for soprano, baritone and piano quintet.
Charting West’s imagined thoughts, intercut by Binswanger’s observations, the work depicts eating disorders and gender dysphoria with unflinching directness. It’s a disturbing listen – rightly so given the content – sung with passionate commitment by Jennifer Zetlan, with Nathan Gunn and an expanded Aeolus Quartet ably supportive under conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya.
Yet the setting is problematic. Bidart’s poem has West combine subjective anguish with philosophical reasoning in a way which opens a door to her interior state. However, Gordon transplants this into arias with little dramatic framework, the score amounting merely to a dissonant-tonal reflection of the emotional surface. Hence – however sympathetically intended – West becomes a cypher for her condition, ironically reducing her to type. More successfully, a section focusing on West’s obsession with Maria Callas raises thought-provoking meta-opera questions about the mental pressures experienced by singers.