Murder Myth Married to Music—Lizzie Borden Wields her Axe at Tanglewood

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Lizzie Borden reaches for the axe in Jack Beeson's opera at Tanglewood. Photo Hilary Scott.
Lizzie Borden reaches for the axe in Jack Beeson’s opera at Tanglewood. Photo Hilary Scott.

Lizzie Borden
Jack Beeson, composer
Richard Plant, Kenward Elmslie, libretto
a chamber version by Todd Bashore and John Conklin
Boston Lyric Opera, Ozawa Hall, Tanglewood
Thursday July 31, 2014

conducted by David Angus
directed by Christopher Alden
designed by Andrew Holland
costumes by Terese Wadden
lighting by Allen Hahn

Heather Johnson – Elizabeth Borden
Omar Najmi – Rev. Harrington
Caroline Worra – Abigail Borden
Chelsea Basler – Margret Borden
Daniel Mobbs – Andrew Borden
David McFerrin – Cpt. Jason MacFarlane

In Jack Beeson and Kenward Elmslie’s 1965 retelling, Lizzie Borden is unequivocally presented the murderer of her step-mother and father; in the opening moments, as the orchestra starts up with a scream of outrage, Lizzie runs onstage with an axe and plants it firmly in the middle of the family table. It remains there for most of the opera, sometimes reached for, sometimes stroked, and eventually seized with murderous intent. The opera is framed by a small children’s chorus in the left balcony singing hymns at the beginning and concluding with the well-known rhyme “Lizzie Borden took and axe / And gave her mother forty whacks….” As they chant it repeatedly, the tempo accelerates and their voices morph into hysterical chatter like the sound-track of Alfred Hitchcock’s film, The Birds. And that is how the opera ends.

As a matter of the historical record, the jury acquitted Borden, and the facts of the case are still not settled. There are a handful of competing theories about what may have actually happened. But the story as given makes for a cracking good opera, which rightfully inhabits the space of an American myth that aligns powerfully with others that share its elements. In the operatic world, there is Wozzeck, which offers a parallel path of a psychologically abused and unbalanced character (also based on a real person) driven to commit murder. Themes of religious fanaticism, penny-pinching businessmen, isolated and frustrated women, and the claustrophobia of small-town American life all come together and are masterfully evoked by Beeson’s score. Beeson linked Lizzie to Elektra “with the parents switched.” American literature provides other avatars: Henry James’s Washington Square gives us the daughter under the thumb of her tyrannical, condescending father. The venom with which the parents needle and provoke the daughters is common coin in twentieth-century American drama, from O’Neill and Odets to Tennessee Williams (The Glass Menagerie) and Arthur Miller. Another narrative that originated simultaneously and contains striking parallels is Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.

Boston Lyric Opera mounted a condensed version of the opera, which was originally created for the New York City Opera. They reduced its two acts (originally running about 2 hours) to a single act of seven scenes without intermission lasting about 90 minutes. The scoring was reduced from full orchestra to a seventeen-piece chamber orchestra with one-or-two-on-a-part strings, conducted by David Angus. This version was billed as a “realization” by Todd Bashore (orchestration) and John Conklin (dramaturgy). The resourceful staging was minimalist but evocative, set against a giant photo of the Borden house in Fall River set at a raked angle, as was the stage itself. The orchestra occupied a triangular space on the right side of the set—it all worked well on the non-theatrical Ozawa Hall stage. I assume that the purpose of the enterprise was to make the opera accessible to smaller companies such as the BLO. A similar motivation was discussed last summer in a pre-performance panel regarding the opera The Great Gatsby. There, composer John Harbison revealed that he was preparing a condensed version for the same purpose. In the case of Lizzie Borden, I think there were some losses involved in the transformation. Some plot details became blurred, and the heft of the strings was lacking in places that needed it; they tended to be overbalanced by the winds. Beeson’s approach to the score is one of full-out symphonic drama—the orchestra often has the role of commentator and co-narrator in the manner of Berg’s operas. But given the limited resources, the re-orchestration was skillfully accomplished.

An opera rises and falls on both its dramatic viability and its music—this story and libretto prove to be assuredly stage-worthy. Although there are no sweeping or memorable tunes that one can sing on the way out of the theater, the acoustic impression made by this score is a powerful and lasting one. I therefore found it puzzling that the printed program, while providing a brief account of the genesis of the opera, devoted extensive space to the BLO, the performers, directors and designers, but not a word of background about the composer or the original librettists. The name of Jack Beeson is hardly a household word among music lovers; he and his other works deserve to be much better-known, given that this opera is already that rara avis: an American operatic classic. This effective performance should have piqued the interest of the appreciative audience, were they better informed. (Full disclosure: I was a student of Jack Beeson’s as both an undergraduate and graduate student at Columbia University during the 1960’s.) For that reason, I include the following background:

Jack Beeson was born in Muncie, Indiana in 1921 and died in Shelter Island NY in 2010. He studied at the University of Toronto School of Music, at Eastman School, and privately with Bela Bartók in 1944-5. During that time he was active in the Columbia University Opera Theater, where he encountered American works by Virgil Thomson, Gian Carlo Menotti, and Samuel Barber. He also started producing his own operas. He subsequently won a Prix de Rome and Fulbright, and studied at the American Academy from 1948-1950. In 1958 he became MacDowell Professor of Music at Columbia where he spent the rest of his teaching career. His list of students who became composers is long and distinguished.

Music theater dominates Beeson’s work list but he also produced songs prolifically, as well as chamber and orchestral works. His literary sources included plays by Paul Goodman and William Saroyan which he adapted himself, and libretti by Kenward Elmslie and Sheldon Harnick. A later major effort with Harnick is the opera Cyrano which was premiered in Germany in 1994 but as far as I know, has not been performed in a major American venue. Several of his operas have been televised, including Lizzie Borden. Given the struggles that American opera composers have had in establishing their works in the repertory, Beeson’s oeuvre shows a high level of success, especially Lizzie Borden, which was premiered and then revived by New York City Opera, shown on television, and produced at Glimmerglass. One key to that success is Beeson’s intense focus on intelligibly sung English, and insistence on texts that are singable. He also has a unique grasp of how acting and singing can be brought together. His musical style can call upon German expressionist resources when needed (he is attracted to themes of psychological complexity as well as home-spun humor) but can draw on an unabashed lyricism inspired by Italian opera when appropriate. It is to be hoped that the successful presentation by the BLO will stimulate interest in Beeson’s other works; it would have been helpful for the program to shine a bit more of a spotlight on its creators.

The cast of the BLO performance was uniformly fine. A stand-out was Caroline Worra in the role of Abigail, Lizzie’s step-mother, an over-the-top role that calls for classic operatic extravagance. The character of Abigail is that of a would-be diva full of second-rate flirtatiousness and tawdry forms of social pretension. Her rendition of the “Rossignol” song was both vocally virtuosic and hilarious in a sinister way. Lizzie was portrayed by Heather Johnson who projected the painful repression, frustration, and rage of her character with a powerful delivery. This is not a part that attempts to garner sympathy by showing a softer side of the character; rather, the subtle indications of growing psychopathology are presented from the start— the distortions of her personality have already begun to form long before the portrayed action. We see them working powerfully toward the surface as she continues to be tormented by her parents. Andrew Borden, the father, was chillingly recreated by Daniel Mobbs, who presented an almost stereotypically puritanical capitalist personality when confronting Lizzie, miraculously transforming into a pliably sensual one under the manipulations of his new wife Abigail. The rest of the cast performed ably and the ensembles were well-balanced, transparent, and dramatically effective, particularly the powerful quintet that ends the fourth scene in which the pairings of Abigail-Preacher (sung by Omar Najmi) and Margret-Captain (the sister and her lover sung by Chelsea Basler and David McFerrin) embody the claustrophobic restrictions on Lizzie’s future, pushing her dramatically toward her psychic break.

Lizzie Borden employs traditional operatic forms of ensembles and arias, but Beeson embeds them in a seamless flow that almost conceals the set-pieces within the natural-sounding flow of American-flavored dialogue. There is no sense of the creators attempting to make the language sound poetic—these are plain-spoken characters—and the wide-ranging sophisticated musical techniques (the use of elaborate counterpoint including canon, vocal coloratura, recitative etc) fit the story so appropriately that one barely notices them. If the chamber version presented at Tanglewood helps make the opera and its composer better known, it will have served a powerful purpose, and hopefully lead larger companies to consider mounting the original version.

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