Modern stage special effects have opened new frontiers in grotesquerie. Last year’s Boston Lyric Opera production of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s “Greek” included a certain eye-popping sequence (literally), and David Lang’s recent “anatomy theater” takes place during the public dissection of a hanged murderess, sparing no gore or gristle.
This writer is a tad squeamish when it comes to such things, so it was with slight trepidation that I walked into the world premiere of composer Julian Grant and librettist Mark Campbell’s bile-dark spectacle “The Nefarious, Immoral but Highly Profitable Enterprise of Mr. Burke & Mr. Hare” at the Cyclorama at the Boston Center for the Arts Wednesday night, knowing that many a body would appear on the anatomist’s table. As it turned out, very little bloody business is actually shown on stage, except for one splashy surprise in the final seconds. The notorious murderers are the title characters, but the story of this opera belongs to their victims.
In the early 19th century, Edinburgh was a stronghold of anatomy schools, which required a constant supply of cadavers. As the opening chorus of “Burke & Hare” informs us, the only cadavers that were legally permissible to dissect were those of prisoners, suicides, or orphans. Some turned to grave robbing in order to collect cash for corpses. Two lower-class men, William Burke and William Hare, took this one step further. Over the course of a year, they preyed on drunks, vagrants, and sex workers— people who were less likely to be missed — and sold the bodies in Surgeon’s Square until they were caught.
Five of the bodies that Burke and Hare sold are given voice as characters, with the singers clad in ragged gray period dress and caked with pale makeup. In the individual scenes around their deaths, they slide between omniscient soliloquy and interaction with the other characters. The music for each is distinct, anchored in a different instrument in the chamber ensemble deftly conducted by David Angus.
Baritone David Cushing put up an affecting performance as the doddering soldier Donald, the first corpse the pair sold. Mezzo-soprano Emma Sorenson was sprightly and snarky as the young sex worker Mary Paterson. With his spider-silk voice accompanied by Don Krishnaswami’s haunting solo viola, tenor Michael Slattery inhabited the innocent savant Daft Jamie completely. The evening’s most truly disturbing moment came when Burke and Hare’s ladies, both sung and acted to despicable, harpyish perfection by Michelle Trainor and Heather Gallagher, stripped off a trembling Slattery’s hat and jacket before his character’s (unstaged) murder.
The sound world of Burke and Hare is harsh and spiky. As Hare, Craig Colclough was a gleefully unctuous con man, luring victims with palpable joy, with the evocative baritone Jesse Blumberg’s Burke a more hesitant participant in the dirty deeds. The surface-level characterization was rooted in the extensive body of research on the murders, down to the two’s constant drinking and carousing with their women. However, Campbell’s libretto leans on ironic catchphrases and meta commentary, and makes only perfunctory mention of the more intriguing facets of their characters, for example Burke’s devout religious faith.
Tenor William Burden cut a stately, sinister figure as Dr. Robert Knox, the ambitious, knowledge-worshipping anatomist who “buys the beef.” Just as the character thinks himself above everything else — the lower classes, the law, right and wrong — his lines are lofty, riding high in his range. The rapture with which he sung about “clear bone structure” outdid many a love duet. BLO stalwart baritone David McFerrin made the best of Dr. Ferguson, who is handed a tragic romantic subplot and the libretto’s clumsiest verses.
Director David Schweizer and the rest of the creative team served the show well. Caleb Wertenbaker’s sets were minimal and effective, and the in-the-round setup at the Cyclorama helped to evoke a public dissection theater. Robert Wierzel’s lighting drew contrasts between the rowdy boarding house and the cold anatomy school with just a change of filter. Movement director Melinda Sullivan deserves an especial bravo for the way she directed the victims to flop. Quite bloody good.
THE NEFARIOUS, IMMORAL BUT HIGHLY PROFITABLE ENTERPRISE OF MR. BURKE & MR. HARE
At the Cyclorama at the Boston Center for the Arts. Repeats Nov. 10 and Nov. 12 (two performances). www.blo.org