Perhaps it’s too soon to confer repertory status on Jack Beeson’s Lizzie Borden, now playing at the New York City Opera, but the signs are favorable. After all, when a company actually revives an American opera that it premiered in 1965, gives the work a brand-new production, and telecasts a live performance over PBS (on March 24), it must mean something. One can’t say as much for new operas by John Adams or Philip Glass, despite the media hoo-ha whenever one comes along – those trendy pageants seem to disappear from sight as soon as the novelty wears off. Even at that, I suppose Lizzie must strike some heavy thinkers as hopelessly retro, a music-theater piece that still believes in the viability of a linear plot and the vitality of conventional operatic forms.
I see nothing wrong with that, as long as a composer has the technique to make such time-honored devices work. Beeson does, and Lizzie Borden rejoices in its old-fashioned virtues: knowledge of what the voice can do best, a flair for creating character and atmosphere, the ability to manipulate musical idioms in ways that always serve the drama, and a keen ear for capturing the natural rhythmic flow of English. No doubt more avant-garde methods could have been used to dramatize the bloody events that occurred in 1892 in Fall River, Massachusetts: the double ax slaughter of Andrew and Abigail Borden, presumably by Andrew’s daughter Lizzie. Beeson and his colleagues, scenarist Richard Plant and librettist Kenward Elmslie, prefer to give a straightforward narrative account of the tragedy and let audiences draw the obvious parallels themselves. Even at that, no one is likely to miss the lurid Freudian overtones of this grim “family portrait,” or the characters’ close kinship with the wretched inhabitants of Sophocles’ cursed house of Atreus.
One thing the opera is sure about: Lizzie did it, even though a jury acquitted her in 1893. Driven by intolerable parental oppression, the two Borden girls take different escape routes when they can bear no more: Margret into love and marriage, Lizzie into madness and murder. Not only does Elmslie capture and contrast their personalities with cunning precision, but he also possesses a librettist’s greatest asset: the wisdom to know when to step back and let the music take over. And Beeson finds music everywhere in this cruel slice of life – in Abigail’s delicious Victorian parlor ballad as she wheedles Andrew into buying a new piano, in a lilting harvest-home ensemble that unexpectedly turns sour, in the poisonous fog that rolls in from Mount Hope Bay, in Lizzie’s terrifying mad scene, in the smothered emotional intensity that always seems to beset New Englanders before they decide to go berserk. Not one note is wasted as this absorbing psychodrama marches to its gruesome climax.
Unlike most American operas, Lizzie Borden has now been seen enough to create its own performance history. As with any durable stage piece, the characters respond to different interpretations, and the role of Abigail has already had some distinguished exponents. As I recall her, Ellen Faull, the soprano who first sang the part, portrayed the wicked stepmother as more airhead than monster, a spoiled, irritating, overweight kewpie doll with a mean streak. Sheri Greenawald, at Glimmerglass in 1996, where the current production was first seen, made Abigail seem even more petulant and sinister, adding a sensual element to her character and cruelly rubbing the fact in poor Lizzie’s face. Now we have Lauren Flanigan, whose peaches-and-cream exterior masks a vindictiveness that would make Clytemnestra’s motives seem positively maternal.
Phyllis Pancella, on the other hand, plays the title role with a quiet desperation that stands in marked contrast to the epic hysteria generated by her memorable predecessor Brenda Lewis. At Glimmerglass, I thought Pancella’s Lizzie a bit too understated, but now I see the wisdom of her approach, which registers all the more powerfully for its restraint and careful dramatic pacing. Beyond that, both she and Flanigan sing with a vocal distinction unmatched by any previous Lizzie and Abigail in my experience. The rest of the cast is also first-rate, especially Robin Blitch Wiper’s vulnerable Margret and Stephen West’s overbearing Andrew Borden. Rhoda Levine’s sharp-edged direction, John Conklin’s austere clapboard living-room set, and George Manahan’s alert musical direction all contribute positively. The whole production, in fact, is a magnificent accomplishment that should be even more chillingly effective when seen up close on television.