July 31, 2014
by Michael J. Moran
American composer Jack Beeson, scenario writer Richard Plant, and librettist Kenward Elmslie first published their opera “Lizzie Borden” in 1965. A new version for chamber orchestra with orchestration by Todd Bashore and dramaturgy by John Conklin was commissioned and debuted by Boston Lyric Opera in November 2013. The same forces recently presented it at Tanglewood.
Although the real Lizzie Borden was acquitted of killing her father and stepmother with an ax in 1892 at the family home in Fall River, MA, suspicions of her guilt still persist. The stark and stylized BLO production, performed in 90 minutes without an intermission, built a mood of almost unbearable tension from early scenes of family life to the murders just before the end.
The orchestra was situated at stage right in Ozawa Hall. Set designer Andrew Cavanaugh Holland placed a table with four chairs downstage center, and most of the action was movement of chairs around the otherwise empty stage by the six cast members. Stage director Christopher Alden provided some comic relief by using the floor as a bed for Lizzie’s father, Andrew Borden, and his wife, Abigail, and the table as a piano and lounging area for Abigail.
Soprano Caroline Worra played Abigail to the hilt, garnering much appreciative laughter from the enthusiastic audience. Bass-baritone Daniel Mobbs as Andrew, soprano Chelsea Basler as Lizzie’s younger sister Margret, baritone David McFerrin as Margret’s ship captain fiancé, and tenor Omar Najmi as the pastor of the Borden family church all sang with clarity, focus, and strong characterization. But the evening belonged to mezzo-soprano Heather Johnson as Lizzie, whose heartrending and harrowing account of the tragic heroine won sympathy as well as horror for her actions.
BLO music director David Angus led a tight, intense performance, and the reduced orchestration highlighted both the astringency of the often violent score and the tenderness of its rare lyrical interludes. Members of the Voices Boston children’s chorus sang with spirit from the first balcony.
Projected titles and a post-show panel discussion featuring the composer’s daughter further enhanced this rare opportunity to hear an American operatic masterpiece.