Sacred and Profane

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Daniel Mobbs, Caroline Worra, and Heather Johnson in Boston Lyric Opera's production of Jack Beeson's Lizzie Borden

Daniel Mobbs, Caroline Worra, and Heather Johnson in Boston Lyric Opera’s production of Jack Beeson’s Lizzie Borden

“Lizzie Borden took an axe/And gave her mother forty whacks…”—so begins the old rhyme about the 1890s murder case in Fall River, Massachusetts. Both stepmother and father were killed. Though Elizabeth Borden was cleared of the crime in a jury trial, artistic treatments of the case have assumed her guilt, notably Agnes de Mille’s ballet of 1948, Fall River Legend, and Jack Beeson’s opera Lizzie Borden of 1965. There are films and television series, some realized, some still in the planning stage.

Boston Lyric Opera staged a “chamber version” of Beeson’s opera, with shortened plot and reduced cast and orchestra, in performances beginning November 20th and running for several days. Todd Bashore and John Conklin (credited but not further identified in the program booklet) prepared this version. It was part of BLO’s admirable  “Opera Annex” series, which presents shorter and contemporary operas in various small-scale venues around the city. On this occasion it was The Castle at Park Plaza, right downtown.

In this opera the old rhyme is sung near the end by a group of small children, with somewhat the effect of the children in Fritz Lang’s film M, singing cheerfully near the beginning about the serial killer of children, of whom the whole city is terrified. Of course, the children in M are still under threat. But, in a sense, so are those in Lizzie Borden. Not from Lizzie, acquitted and living quietly at home, but from the social and family forces that have made Lizzie what she is, and driven her to do her deed. The opera presents the Borden family as a seething cauldron of tensions and mutually inflicted miseries, coming to a boil-over, as in a Eugene O’Neill play. The father is a highly controlling religious hypocrite. The stepmother is a former servant who holds the father under a sexual spell and seeks to cut out and dominate Lizzie and her sister. BLO’s production, directed by Christopher Alden and designed by Andrew Holland, set the story in a vaguely 1950s/early 1960s world, with furniture (minimal) and clothes of that era, on a steeply raked stage leading up to a giant tilted photographic backdrop of the actual Victorian Borden house. The disorienting angles of the stage and backdrop added to the craziness of the whole experience, like the camera angles in an Orson Welles film. The blurring of eras suggested that all these tensions of family life go on forever, if not always coming to such a violent outcome—though we do see this still today. The children are in danger.

Beeson’s music, tonal but moody and anguished, is a bit like that of film noir scores, but very smart, varied and inventive (film seems to keep coming back here). Conductor David Angus and the small orchestra (eight strings, single winds and brass, percussion and harp) acquitted themselves very well—high writing for French horn sounded a bit strained on first night, but no doubt improved. Mezzo Heather Johnson as Lizzie sang with a full and very attractive voice—the best in the cast—and projected something of the quality of Sophocles’ Electra, treading a line between aggrieved sanity and out-of-control insanity. At the beginning she smashes an axe into the kitchen table, showing that horrors are brewing, then comports herself well though clearly strained, then snaps, then carries on. Soprano Caroline Worra as the stepmother was big-voiced (almost too much so), sexy, and nicely overbearing. Bass-baritone Daniel Mobbs was scary and unpredictable as the father—just right.

For me, this production’s change of the original material from the Victorian era to the 1950s worked well enough, partly because the setting was not so thoroughly of the’50s or any time, despite the stepmother’s pants suit and the modern kitchen table and chairs. There was a lot of empty space, an abstract quality to the staging as a whole, and that huge photograph of the original house at the back. Eras blurred, conveying the eternal problem. There is no fixed, reliable rule about changes of setting in operas (or plays) from what authors had in mind. Two years ago, BLO’s Opera Annex scored a great success with Peter Maxwell Davies’s opera The Lighthouse, about disappearing lighthouse keepers and a dooming, delusional religious fanaticism. The straightforward, well acted production at the Kennedy Library, with a large window in back of the set looking out to the real sea and a flashing sea light, was just what the composer—and, let us say, the opera itself—had in mind. Last year Opera Annex presented James MacMillan’s Clemency in a South Boston venue, and the distorted setting really blunted the effect of the work and created confusion. The opera deals with the visit of three angels to Abraham in the Old Testament, to assure him that he and his wife, Sarah, though aging, will have a son to found a new godly nation. The angels happen to be on their way to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, cities abominable to God; and Abraham implores them, successfully, to agree to spare any remnants of the righteous (they end up sparing Abraham’s nephew Lot and his family—not part of the opera). BLO’s production gave us a bare domestic setting (though with a marvelous tree growing up and across, over people’s heads, suggesting the power of nature and the organic, and Abraham’s good will). But, strangely, the angels reveal themselves to be suicide bombers, strapping on explosive vests before going on to their work at Sodom. MacMillan’s score renders the agonized and passionate character of Abraham, which large-voiced baritone David Kravitz realized very effectively. And Abraham’s turmoil and his all-but-quarrel with the angels perhaps comports with overtones of modern Middle East violence raised by this production. Still, what is being said by angels as suicide bombers? That God is on the side of terrorists? That God is evil? MacMillan offers much beautiful tritone writing for the angels, reminiscent of medieval music, to render the mystery and fascination of divinity. And what this production simply sidestepped was the focus on divinity central to this opera. In a conversation with the audience after the performance, MacMillan was polite about the production but clearly ill at ease. He talked about being inspired by Russian icon painter Andrei Rublev’s masterpiece, the Old Testament Trinity (the image is easy to find on the Internet)—and this is the visual and dramatic world a production of this opera ought to summon up. Christians regard the three angels as an Old Testament prefiguring of the idea of God in three persons or aspects (Father, Son, Holy Spirit). Rublev’s icon presents the three angels sitting at Abraham’s table, radiating power, kindness, mystery (why must we look at Three to see One?). Clemency is the drama of a compassionate and burdened man facing divinity in its severity and drawing from it, in answer to him, divinity’s own clement and truly just character. A production of this work needs to face divinity.

On November 16th, a few days before the beginning of the Lizzie Borden run, the invaluable Boston Modern Orchestra Project gave a concert performance of Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein’s opera Four Saints in Three Acts, written in the late 1920s, first produced in 1934. This playful work presents numerous saints and an indeterminate number of acts (the issue of how many is discussed by the participants). Playful—but not satiric. Saintliness is a fact here and a question—what is it really?—as Saints Ignatius and Teresa (rendered by two different singers) come forth and make utterances, and over the course of the piece make a progress to Heaven. Stein is, of course, famously radical in her deployment of the English language, with incomplete sentences, contorted simple syntax, and all but endless repetition. What, we are asked to consider, are words? Are words and sentences merely objects, standing at a distance from us? Can we actually say something with words? Do words and sentences in fact comport with reality? The upshot of Stein’s work is that words do comport with reality, and that we can say something, but that conventions and our usual ways of thinking and speaking are dead—we need to go forward with the difficulties and annoyances and delights of experimentation. Saintliness is a fact, but hard to make out, best discernible through new fancies of language and—as it turns out—music. Thomson’s music and setting of Stein are just as radical as Stein herself. We hear what seem hymn tunes, gospel tunes, folk tunes, with lines blurred between quotation, imitation, and fresh invention. And the changes of melody, meter, tempo, mood, and key are frequent and abrupt. Charm and then interruption are the order of the day. It is all upbeat and pleasing, as is Stein—“Pigeons on the grass alas” (pointing to the Holy Spirit?)—but we are constantly called on to re-adjust and re-think.

Gil Rose led a vibrant, high-energy performance, with superb orchestral playing—a smallish ensemble of strings, brass, and single conventional winds, spiced up by harmonium, accordion, saxophone, and percussion. An array of eight soloists across the front of the stage threw themselves into the parts of saints and commentators. Bass Tom McNichols was outstanding as the Compère, a sort of master of ceremonies—big, attractive voice and lots of personality. A double chorus of about 30 sang clearly and fully acted their part in all this, some of them taking solo turns as additional saints, the rest of them embodying an endless array of unnamed saints. This opera was conceived by Thomson and Stein as a great show, with a strong visual element in costume and décor, plus dances and processions. One’s only regret with the BMOP performance was in not getting the full staging, which would have clarified the action a bit, and added to the delight of it all. A recording is in the works, as is the case too with Clemency and Lizzie Borden.

On December 7th, the Cantata Singers brought in the Christmas season with a magnificent performance of Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610. The large St. Paul’s Church in Cambridge was packed, and the audience was wildly enthusiastic at the end. This work in a sense returns us to a traditional and direct contact with the sacred, and yet it is daringly experimental. It presents different kinds of music—different in scale, mood, and form—having an almost centrifugal effect as it spirals out over its course through one new mode after another, involving more and more voices, achieving more and more startling and grand effects, ending with an extended setting in numerous short and diverse movements of the Magnificat, the Virgin Mary’s prayer to God and declaration of his powers and historical accomplishments. One senses in the diverse approaches of the piece the man Monteverdi—or mankind itself—struggling to rise to the challenge of contemplating and identifying with the Virgin and her special experience and understanding. Struggling to rise to the challenge, and indeed, perhaps, succeeding, over and over, unwilling to stop, until a kind of orgasmic, numbing repetition occurs with voices and cornets crying out at the end over the unending glory of God.

David Hoose rehearses the Cantata Singers in Monteverdi's Vespers of 1610. Photo Kayana Szymczak.

David Hoose rehearses the Cantata Singers in Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610. Photo Kayana Szymczak.

Cantata Singers Music Director David Hoose led an accomplished period instruments orchestra and a relatively large chorus of 45 or so in a sumptuous, resonant account of the piece, its resonance compounded by the St. Paul’s Church acoustics. The effect was wonderful, but quite different from the raw, clear beauty of sound and the verbal precision achieved over the years in performances by Boston Baroque under Martin Pearlman, in Jordan Hall. As Hoose wrote in the program book, every performance of the Vespers amounts to being virtually a new work, the score leaves so much up to decision, and historical investigation is so inconclusive. Many approaches are valid; many can work. It was good here to see some young faces, some quite new to the ensemble. Tenor Eric Perry has the light, flexible, and attractive voice perfect for this music with its rapid repeated notes, filigree, and melisma. He sang often with Jason Sabol, and they were wonderful with Sabol offstage as the Echo to Perry’s voice in the Audi coelum—“Hear, o Heaven, my words full of desire and joy [gaudio]”—Echo from afar, “I hear” [audio]—and so on. Hannah McMeans and Lysa Lynch looked like sisters, or sister angels (reminiscent of the two Saint Teresas in Four Saints), and sang beautifully together in the Pulchra es [“You are beautiful, my love”] from the Song of Songs, and in the Esurientes [“He hath filled the hungry with good things”] from the Magnificat. Hoose and the whole group rose above themselves for the Magnificat, achieving an intensity and momentum beyond what the fine performance had showed so far. The soaring soprano line in the first few sections here, strange and unpredictable, brought one into a contact with the divine that could not, believer or unbeliever, be denied. Believer or unbeliever, it is all true—this is the paradox one must face with such music.

About the author

Charles Warren

Charles Warren studied literature and music formally and now teaches film history and analysis at Boston University and in the Harvard Extension School. He is the author of “T.S. Eliot on Shakespeare,” and edited and contributed to the volumes “Beyond Document: Essays on Nonfiction Film” and “Jean-Luc Godard’s ‘Hail Mary:’ Women and the Sacred in Film.”

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