Nice girls don’t kill their parents. Especially not in New England.
Surely this helps to explain the enduring appeal of the story of Lizzie Borden. The unmarried Sunday-school-teaching daughter of a prosperous merchant in Fall River, Lizzie was accused of the double-ax murder of her father and stepmother in the home they shared on Aug. 4, 1892. Brought to trial in one of the most highly publicized murder cases in American legal history, Lizzie was acquitted 10 months later by a jury of 12 men.
But that didn’t prevent her neighbors — and many others — from believing she was guilty. That suspicion even gave rise to a popular skipping-rope rhyme: “Lizzie Borden took an ax and gave her mother 40 whacks. When she saw what she had done, she gave her father 41.”
Lizzie’s story has also inspired songs, films, a ballet (Agnes de Mille’s 1948 classic “Fall River Legend”) and a 1965 opera by Jack Beeson, “Lizzie Borden,” with a libretto by Kenward Elmslie based on a scenario by Richard Plant. Beeson’s opera will take the stage for four performances this week in a new production mounted by the Boston Lyric Opera Annex in a non-traditional theatrical venue, the Castle on Columbus Avenue.
The BLO’s version condenses the opera’s original three acts into seven scenes, using a revised score for chamber ensemble. John Conklin, BLO’s artistic advisor, undertook the dramatic revision and Todd Bayshore completed the revised orchestration. Christopher Alden, known internationally for his unconventional and often controversial operatic stagings, directs, and David Angus, BLO’s music director, conducts. The singers include mezzo Heather Johnson (Lizzie), soprano Caroline Worra (Lizzie’s stepmother Abigail), baritone Daniel Mobbs (Lizzie’s father Andrew), and soprano Chelsea Basler (Lizzie’s sister Margret).
Conklin designed the sets for a production of the complete “Lizzie Borden” given first at Glimmerglass Opera in 1996, then in 1999 at New York City Opera and subsequently telecast on PBS. But the large orchestral forces made subsequent revivals expensive, which gave Conklin the idea of creating an alternative version for chamber orchestra. Then he began to think about reducing not only the size of the orchestra, but the opera’s dramatic length, so that it could be done more easily by small companies in smaller venues and without an intermission. He also enlisted the support of the composer’s daughter, Miranda Beeson, who helped persuade the opera’s publisher, Boosey and Hawkes, to sanction the project. (Jack Beeson died in 2010.)
Eventually Conklin fashioned a version in seven scenes, running about 80 minutes. “Rather than cutting out big sections, I took out little snippets here and there, without changing the dramatic flow,” Conklin explained in a recent interview. “This is not a substitute version — it does not supplant the full-length version, but it provides a more economically viable option for some kinds of producing organizations. This version has the four family members onstage the entire time. So only a single set is needed, and the music written for scene-change interludes could be cut.”
Conductor Angus has been proofreading and editing the revised orchestration. “We have left the bones of the story,” he said. “Remember that many details of the real story were changed in the libretto; a gruesome story has become even more so. In the opera, Lizzie is guilty. Our chamber version reduces the orchestral doubling, and requires only about a third of the players needed for the full version. The style of the music is harsh and gritty, something like film noir scores, with dramatic speed and concentration. I would compare it to what Leos Janacek accomplishes in his operas ‘Kat’a Kabanova’ and ‘Jenufa.’ ” Not incidentally, both of these operas feature a heroine driven (like Lizzie Borden) to desperate acts by the repressive small-town patriarchal society in which she lives.
Director Alden last worked at Boston Lyric Opera in 1997, when he directed “Lucia di Lammermoor.” Since then his career has prospered, particularly in Europe, where he has the reputation of a gifted nonconformist. In an interview, he said he particularly welcomes the challenge of directing “Lizzie Borden” in the unusual setting of the castle.
“Doing operas in venues other than opera houses adds another level, and creates an edgier atmosphere. And the castle is an appropriately dark, gothic place. I find the subject matter of this opera very resonant today, a portrayal of the dark nightmarish side of the American family ethic, a sort of American myth. The opera follows Lizzie step by step, and her motivations are clearly laid out. She is not a monster. The story is really very close to the Greek tragedy of Elektra, and I see the house in which the Bordens live as something like the House of Atreus in that story.”
Alden sets the action on a tilted platform in front of an oversize photo of the Borden house in Fall River. (Today the house is operated as a bed-and-breakfast inn.) The family members are confined together on the platform, in the house, for the duration of the piece. “There’s no way offstage until you kill somebody,” observed John Conklin of the set design by Andrew Holland, making his BLO debut.
Johnson is singing the role of Lizzie for the first time, and said in an interview that she finds it a considerable challenge both musically (“the most complicated score I’ve ever worked on”) and emotionally (“one mad scene after another”). “When I come home from rehearsal I collapse on the sofa and watch ‘Modern Family’ or ‘Parks and Recreation’,” she said. Johnson’s good friend Worra is Abigail, the nasty stepmother. “It’s always fun to play the villain in a show,” Worra joked. “But the music is very difficult. I have to pay lots of attention to counting and pitches, while expressing intense emotions.”
Johnson is five months pregnant, and says her baby has been doing lots of jumping around during rehearsals. “My husband told me that after this it’s only Mozart and Bach until the baby is born.”Harlow Robinson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.