Review of The Trials of Patricia Isasa

May 21, 2016

Friday night, at the historic Monument-National theatre in Montreal, a new opera was premiered by composer/performer Kristin Nordeval and librettist Naomi Wallace, based on the true story of Patricia Isasa. Patricia was kidnapped at 16 in her native Argentina, tortured, raped, and held for two years without charge. She is one of the rare survivors of the 30,000 who were "disappeared" during the military Junta that ruled the country from 1976 to 1983. After 33 years, she managed to get her abusers convicted to hefty jail terms.

The opera opened with a dialogue between present day Patricia (voiced with great passion by the composer, Kristin Nordeval) and her 16-year old self (Rebecca Woodmass, in a stunning performance). As we see a spectacular three-dimensional architect-style drawing of a library appear on a scrim (young Patricia want to be an architect and, indeed, fulfills that dream), the two Patricias argue about her time in the Junta's grip. Young Patricia demands that her story be told, while the older version of herself tries to make peace with her past. As the opera proceeds, Patricia's abusers appear, in her dreams or thoughts, as she remembers the horrors she suffers. Eventually three men, all complicit in her abuse and that of countless others, appear in a trial setting and spout absurd defences.

The music employs a wonderfully diverse set of instruments, including the bandoneon, (an expressive accordian-like made famous by Argentinian son Astor Piazolla), electric guitar, percussion, and some amazing pre-recorded soundscapes combined with the live instrumentation. Beautifully written, this music made the most of the fine voices in the cast, especially Woodmass whose clarity of tone and childlike stage presence was mezmerizing. A fusion of "new music" Argentinian folk music, soundscape and contemporary operatic writing, the music supported the story with dramatic changes of colour, mood, and intensity. The voices, gently and superbly amplified in this space to properly balance with the orchestra, navigated some challenging coloratura with grace and fire. Nordeval, in her double role as composer and lead performer, was onstage almost the whole of the opera, which must have been exhausting. But what a thrill, to sing such beautiful music that she herself created, in such a glorious production!

The lighting and projections added a major element to the visual appeal of the opera. When the chorus first appeared (from under an ancient, noisy scrim) they were lit in such a way that they looked underwater. This striking effect was somewhat diffused due of the length of time it was used. At the back of the stage, behind the chorus (who were excellent, directed by Tiphaine Legrand) were rows of stacked boxes representing the mountain of files that were kept (or not) on the prisoners. These boxes were at times overlaid with the photographs of faces of the "disappeared", and these images were then taken away, a chilling and extremely effective idea.

This was almost a metaphysical story in some ways, with not a lot of action onstage which resulted in the pace dragging at some points. Performed in two acts, I felt like an intermission would have been a good idea, as the subject matter is so dark that a break would have been appreciated. The production was directed by Pauline Vaillancourt, the Artistic Director of venerable arts institution Chants Libre. Overall, the elements of video, music, soundscape, projections and lighting came together to form a compelling whole. I felt, however, that the lack of action onstage made the performance feel very long.

I wholeheartedly applaud Chants Libre for taking on this project. The subject of torture and human-rights abuses is unfortunately still very pertinent today. Composer Nordeval mentions in her notes that Patricia's torturers were trained at the School of the Americas, a US Department of Defense military training school. The real Patricia Isasa, who appeared on film at the end of the opera, and live onstage to accept tumultuous applause for her courage, spoke of having endured the same treatment as did prisoners at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and the US detention centre at Guantámo Bay, Cuba. Holding a light, such as this compelling new work, to such darknesses of the worst of human behaviour will hopefully cause us all to keep human-rights abuses top of mind.