Beverly Grigsby's "The Mask of Eleanor" is technically about Eleanor of Aquitaine, one of the most influential women of the Middle Ages. But the composer, whose chamber opera received its Southland premiere at Cal State Northridge on Thursday evening, aims also to communicate something personal and topical yet universal.
One could not pretend, in a 50-minute work, to explore adequately the life or thoughts of a figure as complex as Eleanor. Grigsby instead constructs a tenso, or troubadour debate, between Eleanor, who represents the "more worldly, expansively creative and female spiritual force" and Bernard de Clairvaux, who symbolizes "narrow and destructive masculine power." This understandably gynecocentric view is supported by the flaws of the protagonist's successive husbands--Louis' perniciousness and Henry's infidelity.
The Northridge professor's thesis proved engaging but not entirely convincing. While each of the work's 10 sections can be apprehended and enjoyed, nothing links them. In short order, the heroine sings of the Crusade, of Henry, of Richard, of Rosamund.
The musical thread moves more continuously, with much of the vocal writing in a neomedieval, chant-like style, backed by a rather pleasant, nondescript accompaniment realized on the Fairlight Computer Music System. "The Song of Henry," however, proved stylistically inconsistent with the rest of the opera; it sounded like a number from an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical placed over a "New Age" accompaniment.