September 24, 2020
by Ron Schepper
David Ludwig and Katie Ford: The Anchoress
As old a tale as The Anchoress is, the contemporary resonance of the one-woman opera by composer David Ludwig (b. 1974) and librettist Katie Ford (b. 1975) is impossible to ignore. In medieval times, hundreds of women (men too, but they were outnumbered four to one) volunteered to become anchoresses, mystics secluded within church-attached cells whose anchorholds included two windows, one opening onto the sanctuary to enable participation in the Eucharist and the other to the outside world to allow villagers to consult the anchoress on spiritual matters. She thus held a rather unusual position, one that honoured her with a particular status but also, in a sense, imprisoned her. Such sacrifice, however, enabled the anchoress to be protected from the kinds of domestic violence, sexual assault, and disease others might have been vulnerable to. Though it was created in 2018, the work eerily predates the current pandemic, with its attendant focus on self-isolation as a survival tactic, and, of course, domestic violence and sexual assault are sadly still with us today. In Ford’s words, “All of us now know more about seclusion and enclosure than we likely ever wanted to know.”
Issued on PRISM Quartet’s XAS label, this premiere recording of the monodrama features Hyunah Yu, an American soprano born in South Korea, in the title role accompanied by the quartet’s saxophones and the early-music ensemble Piffaro, The Renaissance Band; the half-hour piece is followed by Three Anchoress Songs, a short work Ludwig composed while he was developing the larger one and performed by Mimi Stillman on flute and piccolo and PRISM’s tenor saxist Matthew Levy.
The complexities of the anchoress’s role engendered a similarly complicated portrait from Ford, a poet who’s appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and other august publications and teaches creative writing at the University of California, Riverside. Her anchoress is calculating, thoughtful, angry, and bitter, facets that emerge as we eavesdrop on conversations conducted at her window and listen in on her inner roamings. The Philadelphia-based Ludwig, whom NPR deemed one of the world’s “Top 100 Composers Under Forty,” amplifies Ford’s characterization by having the soprano perform the work using a panoply of vocal techniques, from sprechstimme and vocalise to lyrical musings and dramatic outpourings. Enhancing Yu’s performance, a solo recorder acts as a doppelgänger of sorts in shadowing the voice and punctuating its expressions. Like others in Piffaro’s arsenal of Renaissance-period instruments (theorbo, lute, sackbut, dulcian, krumhorn, shawm, percussion), the recorder helps establish the spirit of the earlier time.
The work’s ceremonial tone is established immediately with Yu’s intoning “What Is My Life?” against a stern backdrop of funerary music, the movement signifying the anchoress’s transition from her former life to the living grave of her anchorhold. Following it, PRISM’s saxophones introduce “Once a Woman Went Down the Hill” with fluttering figures, after which the vocal and instrumental elements alternate between lyrical and turbulent passages. A regal stateliness informs Piffaro’s backing of Yu during “What Are We to Make of Visions Lit?,” even if violent saxophone stabs otherwise punctuate the presentation. A similar stately folk character infuses “A Woman of the Village,” Yu progressing from spoken word to a moving vocalise.
Sonically, the work’s most diverting moment occurs during “One Night in Particular” when furious strumming, shouts, and saxophone flurries generate, in the composer’s words, “twelve seconds of chaos” after Yu’s “your own terror” utterance. Considerably unlike it is the prayerful “When I Woke Up Sighing,” highlighted by Yu’s high-register command. At times PRISM and Piffaro accompany her separately; at other times, the units blend, the result always effective regardless of the contrasting timbres of the groups’ instruments. As strong as their contributions are, the recording primarily hinges on the soprano’s performance and in that regard Yu is unfailing, her traversing of the emotional extremes associated with the anchoress wholly convincing.
Though Three Anchoress Songs is dwarfed by the larger work, it’s not without appeal or substance, especially when the interplay between Stillman and Levy is so artfully handled. Even with the vocal dimension absent, the piece’s connection to The Anchoress is audible in the winding patterns essayed by the woodwinds and the tonal character of the three songs. One final surprise comes at the end of “Rondeau,” where the transporting lyricism of the piccolo and saxophone are replaced by the performers briefly singing Machaut’s rondeau “Doulz viaire gracious.” By CD standards, the thirty-eight-minute duration is modest, yet concision works in the release’s favour. There’s something immensely satisfying about a presentation that sees a compact, eight-part opera accompanied by a related work that’s even more modest. Experienced together, the two offer a thoroughly rewarding and complete experience.