Compelling soprano, unflinching text make “Ellen West” unforgettable

Wed Jan 15, 2020 at 2:55 pm
Jennifer Zetlan sings the title role in Prototype Festival’s presentation of Ricky Ian Gordon’s opera Ellen West. Photo: Arielle Doneson

In just 8 years, the Prototype Festival has easily become one of the leaders — if not the leader — in contemporary opera in New York. And it has done so by producing challenging, meaningful new works in much more robust forms than its peer organizations can usually put together.

A perfect example is Ricky Ian Gordon’s Ellen West, which had its New York premiere at the Gelsey Kirkland Arts Center on Tuesday night. A seventy-five-minute one-act for two singers, two dancers, and chamber orchestra, this work manages to feel immersive despite its small scale.

The text comes almost entirely from an existing poem, Frank Bidart’s Ellen West, with an additional framing prologue and epilogue written by Bidart himself especially for the opera. The prologue in particular is helpful to lay out the bare outline of the case of Ellen West, a woman who suffered from anorexia nervosa and committed suicide by poison after her release from psychiatric care. 

After the introduction given by the character of Ludwig Binswanger, the psychiatrist, the meat of the text intersperses Binswanger’s case notes with Ellen’s inner monologue. This is an emotionally heavy text, with searing phrases that straddle the line between poetry and existential philosophy: “The ideal of being thin conceals the idea not to have a body.” 

Hearing Bidart’s text in full, aloud, in musical form, is a harrowing experience, exploring how Ellen’s struggles with her body image are wrapped up tightly in her struggles with the very idea of being. The poetry has an unsettling ability not just to evoke sympathy in its hearers, but to draw them into the speaker’s frame of mind.

On this foundation, Gordon builds a rich work on a small scale, crafting a score for string quartet, bass, and piano that never loses its basic feeling of tension. Ellen West is not so straightforwardly melodic as some of Gordon’s other works, but it is no less expressive for that. In the taut, hard-edged lines of Ellen’s vocal part we hear a reflection of the psychology expressed so vividly in the text, grappling with existential problems and struggling to find resolution. The hardest-hitting lines of the poem come out in blazing musical climaxes, yet Gordon finds plenty of room to let the character have quieter moments of introspection, in passages that wander as she explores a new idea.

The score, too, plays a role in revealing Ellen’s thinking, particularly in long, rhapsodic interludes that overlay breaks in the text, providing an emotional expression to accompany her physical movements. In one memorable scene, Ellen recalls seeing a performance of Maria Callas as Tosca, singing at length of the great singer’s own relationship with her weight, and finding deep empathy in the text of “Vissi d’arte.” In a nod to Puccini’s mastery of characterization through instrumentation, Gordon gives the orchestra a few heart-melting bars of Tosca and Mario’s love theme — and manages to do so without making it feel gimmicky. Lidiya Yankovskaya brilliantly led the orchestral accompaniment, finding meaning in every gesture.

The central pillar of the production is Jennifer Zetlan’s captivating performance as Ellen. In this role, she didn’t bring a lot of warmth into her sound, but her firm soprano has a way of grabbing the listener’s attention and not letting go. Titles were projected above the stage, but they were hardly needed, as Zetlan’s delivery brought intention and clarity to every syllable. From beginning to end, she disappeared entirely into the painful psychology of her character — even if the nature of the role made it hard for an observer to follow her all the way down.

Baritone Nathan Gunn appears in a single, tripartite role representing Binswanger, Ellen’s husband, and even Bidart himself. The part doesn’t have nearly as much range to explore, by design: the clinical candor of Binswanger’s diary serves as direct contrast to Ellen’s inner turmoil. Even so, Gunn, with his chestnut baritone, was able to find tinges of sympathetic warmth in the cold sterility of his text.

Emma Griffin’s staging is not spare, exactly, but it offers only the essentials of physical setting, instead communicating an enormous amount through the actors’ physicality and a handful of symbolic objects and costumes. Two dancers underscore Ellen’s inner monologue through their contrast to each other, one writhing while the other calmly moves about the stage, offering another representation of her internal struggle. 

The most striking of Griffin’s visual choices is in Ellen’s costume: for most of the piece, she wears a pale pink dress more than a little suggestive of a hospital gown, and dozens of copies are strewn about the stage, rearranged in symbolic poses by the dancers. In a climactic sequence near the end of the poem, she begins to put them all on, building layer after layer until she appears sixty pounds heavier — then strips them all off, one by one, until she stands completely naked, clearly representing her massive weight loss, but also the comfort with her body that she could apparently find only in death.

Ellen West runs through January 19 at the Gelsey Kirkland Arts Center.

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