4 THE OPERA JOURNAL 23:3 Sept. 1996 pp69-71 LIZZIE BORDEN at Glimmerglass: Seminal Work in Bare-Bones Production by Leonard Lehrman [1273 words]
"Do you want to tell me something? Tell me upstairs!" my nearly septuagenarian piano teacher used to tease me whenever my leg inadvertently brushed against hers, back in my teens, three decades ago.
That's when Jack Beeson's masterpiece, LIZZIE BORDEN, was premiered at New York City Opera and on NET television. And it's the image of the erotically forbidden upstairs that dominates the current revival by Glimmerglass Opera, which presented eleven performances of what has become a classic American opera July 5-August 19, as part of its 22nd summer season in Cooperstown. The other repertory presented this year included Cavalli's LA CALISTO, Donizetti's DON PASQUALE, and Mozart's LA FINTA GIARDINIERA.
The bare-bones Alice Busch Opera Theater, the company's home since 1987, is an acoustical marvel, and was a fitting environment for the deliberately spare, almost propless but deeply symbolic staging by Rhoda Levine. Robert Wierzel's lighting provided for stunningly contrapuntal shadow play off the high bare walls of John Conklin's sets, silhouetting the relatively unelaborate period costumes of Constance Hoffman.
The six scenes, usually divided into three acts and an epilogue, were presented with but one intermission. Instead of the family sitting down to a meal at the end of Scene 1, the (especially vocally) seductive Sheri Greenawald as Lizzie's stepmother Abigail enticed the imposing Kelly Anderson as her husband Andrew Borden up the stairs to a love tryst, shutting out the two sisters, sung by Margaret Lloyd as Margret and Phyllis Pancella in the title role with unusual (especially for Lizzie) fragility and lyricism.
The musically lush, gorgeous Garden Scene (Scene 2) was, like everything else, played indoors on the stage-filling unit set. The vectors emanating from the Act II parlor quintet recalled FAUST, while the sisters' yearning monologues and duets put one in mind of SALOME and especially ELEKTRA.
But the transparentness of the writing and vividly prosodic word-setting (worthy of comparison with Virgil Thomson or Douglas Moore) stamp the piece as unmistakeably American. Aaron Copland once remarked that Beeson, originally from Muncie, Indiana - memorialized as "Middletown" in a series of books by the Lynd family about the "typical" American town - could make a career as the "typical" American composer. Celebrating his 75th birthday July 15, in a way he has: all but one of his nine operas are on American themes, and even the most recent CYRANO was conceived as being relocated to New Orleans, but eventually moved back to the original play's France. (It premiered last year in Hagen, Germany.)
The only thing one missed in the spareness of the Glimmerglass LIZZIE was Abigail's "Turkish corner" with the vividly described "scimitar" that would become the murder weapon. Instead of grabbing it and racing upstairs in a fit of rage, at the climactic moment near the end of Act III, Lizzie actually appeared to mount the stairs relatively calmly, as the orchestra built up to her mother's offstage scream and one was asked to imagine the corner - and scimitar - as having been upstairs.
These details notwithstanding, the audience was treated to a vocal and instrumental feast, stirringly conducted by the company's capable music director Stewart Robertson, and scheduled to travel in 1998 to New York City Opera - whose new General Director is Glimmerglass's Artistic Director: Paul Kellogg. The effect was in fact so vivid that I'm happy to say it seemed to open the eyes and ears of many - including my guests - to the power of opera as a living art form growing in the hands of living composers. (The Long Island Composers Alliance paid tribute to Beeson and his work on behalf of composers, as an ASCAP board member and holder of other important administrative positions, at its annual Heckscher Park concert August 7.)
Baritone Erin Caves shone in the role of the romantic Captain MacFarlane, whose love relationship with the younger daughter was beautifully set up in staging and music. His waltz-like courting theme (mostly in a slow 6/8), subtly explored throughout the last part of the work, remains in the ear, along with the excellently enunciated charmingly polytonal children's choruses. I confess it inspired a theme in my own first original opera, KARLA (1974) (which has, like LIZZIE, and COSI FAN TUTTE, a cast of 3 men and 3 women) and no doubt many other American operas as well (the work is, in that respect, seminal), though few hold up so well as this one. As Anthony Tommasini put it so well in The N.Y. Times, violating a cardinal rule he enunciated at the recent Music Critics Association meeting of never criticising your audience: "In a healthier musical culture, LIZZIE BORDEN... would be regularly performed"!
One reason the opera does work so well, and powerfully, is probably the subject, which has been the inspiration for the Agnes de MilleMorton Gould "Fall River Legend," the popular early 1960s song of how "You Can't Chop Your Papa Up in Massachusetts" by Michael Brown, a short opera by Mira Spektor, and countless conferences and historical symposia on this, perhaps the most celebrated murder case of the 19th century. Opinions are still divided over the question of whether or not Lizzie actually murdered her parents: Beeson's opera assumes she did, but a jury acquitted her, not by reason of insanity but for lack of evidence. (Shades of last year's O.J. Simpson trial.) The opera differs from history significantly only by making Lizzie's sister younger and adding a love interest for her.
After Gian Carlo Menotti's THE MEDIUM and THE TELEPHONE in 1978, the first time Glimmerglass produced an opera by a living American composer was in 1986: William Schuman's MIGHTY CASEY - particularly appropriate of course for Cooperstown, home of baseball's Hall of Fame. Three years later they revived it and commissioned Schuman for a new work, A QUESTION OF TASTE, which remains to date the only opera they have ever presented in its world premiere, though a few lesser known composers have written works whose first production arrived there by way of a consortium. Now that James Fenimore Cooper's literary star seems once again to be somewhat in the ascendant, a new opera on a story by him would seem to be a logical project worth pursuing for the future....
The conductor of the very first performance of LIZZIE BORDEN, in 1965, was Anton Coppola, uncle of film producer/director Francis Ford Coppola. It was the first modern opera he had ever conducted. Now 80, he has himself since then composed a fair amount of music, originally conceived for a film by his nephew on the subject of the famous Sacco-Vanzetti case.
On June 8, 1996 the Dicapo Opera Theatre and Orlando Opera Company presented "a world premiere reading" at St. Jean le Baptiste in Manhattan of excerpts from what is now being called an opera, SACCO & VANZETTI, composed by Coppola in a style contemporaneous with the 1920s events (though actually it sounds at least several decades older than that). Unlike Marc Blitzstein's project on the same subject (see OPERA JOURNAL 29:1 pp.26--46), this one takes considerable liberties with the truth, relying on subsequently discredited theories of historian Francis Russell's from the early 1960s concerning Nicola Sacco's possible guilt, and ignoring the probable guilt of the confessed murderer Madeiros and his accomplices, and the almost universally-recognized probable innocence of the two Italian immigrants. Instead of emphasizing the two title characters' struggle to express themselves in English (as does Blitzstein), Coppola has them sing almost entirely in an eloquent but stentorian Italian. The entire work is scheduled for a New York City premiere in late 1997.
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