Missy Mazzoli’s Song from the Uproar – The Lives and Deaths of Isabelle Eberhardt (out recently from New Amsterdam) is billed as an opera, but it’s closer to mid-70s art-rock in the vein of Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway than it is to, say, Verdi. If you have to hang a name on it, you could call this album a song cycle. It’s a potently moody, cinematic suite. The lyrics (not written by Mazzoli) are prosaic and don’t really add anything, but the music is intense and often haunting. Mazzoli is a star of the indie classical world, walking the uneasy ground between the avant garde and rock with a style that’s ethereal and hypnotic yet often wary and brooding. This album – a recording by the original cast who premiered the piece earlier this year in New York – attempts to trace the life of the legendary, chameleonic, crossdressing 19th century Swiss adventurer and feminist who traveled throughout North Africa as a man, embraced Islam and ended up dying at 27 in a flash flood shortly after reuniting with her Algerian husband. Mazzoli seizes on this and the many other tragic aspects of a stalwart nonconformist life with a tumultuous, sometimes tormented score, played with verve and intensity by NOW Ensemble conducted by Steven Osgood.
Mezzo-soprano Abigail Fischer ably channels her inner soul sister, along with sopranos Celine Mogielnicki and Amelia Watkins, alto Kate Maroney, tenor Tomas Cruz and baritone Peter Stewart. And as dynamically charged as the ensemble’s performance is, the star of this show is pianist Michael Mizrahi, who shines especially on Mazzoli’s pointillistic, often hard-hitting, challenging staccato passages. This is a long album: fifteen tracks, almost an hour and a quarter worth of music. Since this is billed as an opera, most of the tracks segue from one to the next.
Wordless vocal harmonies rise with a rainswept ominousness as it opens, over wary, dark layers of piano chords, shifting back and forth from quiet to anxious with surreal flickers of electronics: it’s Mazzoli at her lingering best. Sara Budde’s bass clarinet pulses alongside Alexandra Sopp’s flute and Mizrahi’s insistent piano pedalpoint on This World Within Me Is Too Small, followed by the hypnotically shifting choir juxtaposed with cascading piano on Capsized Heart. A lush but tense seashore scene is followed by the lively polyrhythms and contrapuntal vocals of I Have Arrived, which manages to foreshadow doom despite its upbeat intricacies.
A Godspell-ish faux soul song, an aria for Fischer over an ambient backdrop and then a trickily rhythmic number sung in French continue the narrative and maintain an understated unease: by now, it’s obvious that this is not going to end well. Eberhardt survived an attempt on her life, illustrated by another eerily echoing round of vocals, followed by an Indian- and Middle Eastern-tinged piece featuring lushly psychedelic guitar from Mark Dancigers. After that, The Hunted is as ironically bubbly as Oblivion Seekers is downright menacing, Mizrahi leading a doomed lovers’ theme as it rises with the flute over the orchestra.
Dancigers’ searing guitar and Fischer’s increasing sense of dread peak as the next track rises and falls, followed by a death scene, echoes of plainchant amid the torrents and whirlpools. It all ends with Here Where Footprints Erase the Graves, a bitter requiem where the whole ensemble eventually rises to a machinegun crescendo driven by the guitar and flute. If you’re not a fan of opera, don’t let that designation scare you off – this is a strong and decidedly un-fussy album that in a perfect world would be as easily embraced by the kids who discover Pink Floyd year after year as the lonely minority who prefer to blast Philip Glass or John Adams on their playlists.