Lizzie Borden opera at Ozawa Hall Tanglewood
Article by Dave Read
Lizzie Borden, A Chamber Version in Seven Scenes was performed in Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood, in a presentation by the Boston Lyric Opera Orchestra that brought the house down. Maybe this opera gives the lie to the maxim that the US, in comparison to European countries, is a cultural wasteland. How could that be when the whole audience could sing along with the choral epilogue?
Wherever Sophocles and Euripedes found source material for their Electras, Richard Plant could access not only Fall River, MA police logs and newspaper morgue, but he could hear his tragic heroine’s exploits recounted by rope-skipping children in schoolyards all across America!
Lizzie Borden from schoolyard to opera stage
Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.
Plant, author of the scenario, began work on the opera with composer Jack Beeson in 1954, convincing the composer that this retelling of the Electra myth would revolve around why Lizzie Borden did it, rather than if she did it. Plant eventually had to call on Kenward Elmsie to finish the libretto, and Beeson finally cpompleted the music in 1965.
They get to the axe business straight away, with Lizzie planting it – with a loud “thwack,” into the surface of the kitchen table, so that it is pretty much front and center throughout the 90 minute production. No blood, no gore. After Abby and Andrew Border have been murdered, they merely lay still on their backs upstage. And by then, the audience’s sympathy has settled on Lizzie, insofar as we see madness envelope her – as her dead mother’s wedding dress enwraps her.
Even though sung in English, we found it helpful to scan the texts projected on either side of the stage. Something about the operatic singing inhibits discernment of literal sense, but this libretto is laconic enough that reading along didn’t diminish the the beauty of this performance.
Music by Jack Beeson; libretto by Kenward Elmslie
Based on a scenario by Richard Plant
Realized by Todd Bashore (orchestration) and John Conklin (dramaturgy)