This 2019 chamber opera by Ricky Ian Gordon sets a poem by Frank Bidart (plus an added prologue and epilogue in Bidart's own new libretto), which, in turn, was based on the life of a historical individual. Ellen West (1888-1921) was a sufferer from what would now be called anorexia, and Ludwig Binswanger, who was a member of the early generation of psychiatrists, labored unsuccessfully to treat her. Bidart's poem is suited to operatic treatment: it interweaves Binswanger's clinical notes with fictitious diaries and letters of West. Although this does not make for a pleasant evening at the opera, it is devastatingly effective in the hands of soprano Jennifer Zetlan, who inhabits the role of Ellen and sings with clarity that makes the included libretto text unnecessary, and baritone Nathan Gunn as Binswanger. The story rises to the level of tragedy as the West writings deftly illustrate the repression of women, and Gordon matches it with a string quartet-based setting that both does justice to the interiority of the story and has the weight the story deserves. Gordon called the score "an operatic poem," and the work, splendidly realized here live at New York's PROTOTYPE Festival, absolutely lives up to that seemingly contradictory designation. May Ellen West quickly enter the repertory and give other singers the chance to encounter its memorable characters.
Ellen West Review
by James Manheim