Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here: LIZZIE BORDEN

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Photo Credit: Eric Antoniou for Boston Lyric Opera © 2013. It’s all downhill from here.

Presented by Boston Lyric Opera
Music by Jack Beeson
Libretto by Kenward Elmslie
Based on a scenario by Richard Plant
Realized by Todd Bashore (orchestration) and John Conklin (dramaturgy)
Conducted by David Angus
Stage directed by Christopher Alden

November 20 – 24, 2013
Opera Annex: The Castle at Park Plaza
Boston, MA
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Sung in English with projected text (because the diction of the vocalists is excellent but the space eats sound like Cookie Monster eats a baker’s dozen).

(Boston) This is not an opera hoping to experience the heavenly glories of the human voice through song. Lizzie Borden is an impressive piece of theatre that will shock the pants off of audience members expecting traditional operatic fare. Beeson’s opera is beast heavy with repressed sexuality, anger and desperation. Although it was not an enjoyable production per se, the artists involved created a brilliant evening of artful music.

It is, of course, a retelling of the tragic murders of Andrew (Daniel Mobbs) and Abigail Borden (Caroline Worra) at the hands of Elizabeth “Lizzie” Borden. It posits that Lizzie (Heather Johnson) was driven to homicide by the cruel manipulations of her family. Caught in the crossfire are her sister Margaret (Chelsea Basler) and her suitor Cpt. Jason MacFarlane (David McFerrin). What hit the press as the sensationalist crime of passion in 1892, resulted in Lizzie’s acquittal and quiet ostracism from the Fall River, MA community.

Visually, Lizzie Borden, conforms to the conventional expectations of the vintage horror genre. The actors are dressed in costumes recalling the late 1960’s/early 1970’s. The stark set is linoleum and laminated furniture. It is as cold and astringent as the family who occupies it. Before the opera even begins, Andrew Holland’s set prepares the audience for a somber evening.

Lizzie Borden suggests influences such as The Virgin Suicides, In Cold Blood, The Shining, and Carrie. These works share the same palpable tension (both novels and movie adaptations) with the opera. Director,  Christopher Alden goes the extra mile and utilizes Brechtian tactics to alienate the audience even further: vocalists often have their backs to the audience to deliver dialogue; the stage is raked to a  violent angle; the bodies of vocalists walk the stage like maneuvered set pieces. Combined with the tri-toned histrionics from the orchestra and poetic book by Kenward Elmslie, the result is creepy as Hell.

Mezzo Heather Johnson lends appropriate amounts of perversion and torment to the title character. Her Lizzie inspires both pity and horror as she first experiences maltreatment and then delivers it as payment in kind. Johnson’s instrument has a range to rival her acting ability. It is as dexterous as it is colorful. Her two mad scenes could have stolen the show. It is unfortunate that Beeson did not write them longer as this reviewer is posed to believe that Johnson could have carried them to even more dramatic heights.

Equally as impressive was soprano Caroline Worra as Abby Borden. She played the matriarch as a grotesquely sexy gold digger driven to duplicity out of boredom; a conniving Anna Nicole Smith meets Peggy Bundy. Worra has complete ease on the stage. Her voice holds high notes for ages and we want to hear them even as she spouts abuse.

There’s a children’s chorus that sings the infamous nursery rhyme about Borden. The angelic voices of children against the orchestra capitulates this already chilling opera into nightmare category.

If the soundtrack to a 1970’s horror movie was taken to ominous extremes, Lizzie Borden would likely be the outcome. This opera is not easily digestible for the masses. It will please those with a developed ear and a taste for vintage macabre. The quality of the acting will please just about anyone. Attendees might not have relished their experience in the audience but they certainly won’t forget it.

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