Though it seems like the pandemic is now in our collective rearview mirror, trauma may still be lurking in the back seat.
Long Beach Opera’s has opened its 2024 season with the world premiere of “Isola,” a moody one-hour exploration of isolation and resurrection at Compound in Long Beach. With its libretto drawn from the pandemic poetry of J. Mae Barizo, and string and electronic music composed by Alyssa Weinberg, “Isola” attempts a deep dive into feelings buried in our psyches.
Directed by George R. Miller, “Isola” opens with what appears to be a glass coffin (due to the naked female figure laying within it) topped with tufted grass in the center of black gravel holding a shallow pond (production design by Prairie T. Trivuth).
Clumps of greenery along the edges of the water give the pond a swamp-like feel—a fecund place where life emerges from and sinks into the mud.
Two violin players (Mona Tian and Adrianne Pope) and a cellist (Mia Barcia-Columbo) on one end of the swamp take direction from conductor Lucy Tucker Yates at the other end.
Soprano Ariadne Greif somberly begins singing Barizo’s “[rose light at the edges]”—a poetic meditation on time: “for the time being, in the interim / from hour to hour, in due time / in the fullness of time, time remains…”
Subsequent poems include the lines “one day maybe / not soon I’ll be able / to take trains” and “i said words out loud // but no one / heard me,” harkening back to pandemic isolation, from poems Barizo wrote in Appalachia in 2020.
Greif’s strong, clear voice resonates and modulates with the often discordant and erratic string and electronic music (the latter by David Saldana), at one point commandingly reaching a high-pitched crescendo of crisis.
Meanwhile, the full figure in the glass box has stirred (apparently alive!), slowly slinking from an open end and covering herself in a plain shift. Dancer and choreographer Julia Eichten maintains her deliberate pace (as does Greif) throughout, adding soft solidity with her presence.
As the two move about the pond, sometimes splashing water or rolling in gravel, the women appear to be one person doubled or split. In two extended movements, Eichten dresses Greif in new clothing after she becomes wet, Greif’s arms stretched out like a child’s until Eichten gently lowers them.
At one point, Greif lays her head in Eichten’s lap as Eichten caresses her like a mother would a child. All the while, Greif sings Barizo’s lines, including from “[and after that]”—“it’s my happening life without / me happening without me / trapped in this happening / bubble this bubble that I need…”—inspired by poet Gertrude Stein.
Weinberg’s arrangement has Greif singing steadily in legato, almost monotonously at times, while the music varies subtly, as if registering events happening in the background world of time while Greif’s persona grapples existentially in her inner swamp, relying on Eichten’s double of her to keep her alive.
The two women work intimately together to achieve this effect, baring themselves utterly to the audience as they dress and undress. Costumer Julio Cesar Delgaldo uses the flowing, pleated fabrics of Japanese clothier Issey Miyake for their neutral-colored, semi-sheer clothing. (The beauty of Greif’s ivory knit overall with matching collared shirt may be worth the extended time taken for Eichen to dress her in it.)
Weinberg and Barizo note that they intended for lighting changes (designed by Jasmine Lesane) to provide a loose narrative structure, progressing from blue to pink to green and finally orange. However, that effect is somewhat washed out by house lights remaining at a level that perhaps allows the audience to follow the printed libretto.
Without such structure, the audience is immersed from the first to last moment in an archetypal world with little regard for time as we like to live it, where slowness and monotony are punctuated only by fervent splashes of water and languid outfit changes.
But wasn’t that basically the pandemic? While the femintimate “Isola” might not be for everyone, its synesthetic rendering of Barizo’s words transports us emotionally to when the world stopped and we had only ourselves to fall back on to keep going.
Long Beach Opera’s “Isola” continues at Compound, 1395 Coronado Ave., Long Beach, on Saturday, Feb. 10 and Sunday, Feb. 11 at 7:30 p.m. For tickets and information, including an artist talk Thursday, Feb. 8, visit LBOpera.org. Run time is 65 minutes with no intermission.