An Exploratory Double Bill in Theatre and Music

“Lizzie Borden took an axe, and gave her mother forty whacks…”

Anyone at all acquainted with the early nineties television show, Unsolved Mysteries, will probably recall this rather macabre little nursery rhyme.  After attending last night’s preview performance of the Microscopic Opera Company’s production of Lizbeth, by Thomas Albert and Riders to the Sea, by Ralph Vaughan Williams, I can’t seem to put it out of my mind.  Unfortunately, it is not due to the way Mr. Albert utilized it in his somewhat monotone exploration of the legendary New England murderess, Lizzie Borden, but is thanks mostly to my disappointment in his treatment of the material and my subsequent wish that he hadn’t used it at all.

Over all, the Microscopic Opera Company, founded by local conductor Andres Cladera and soprano-turned-director/producer Erica Olden, provided me with anything but a common evening.  Before I get back into Lizbeth, I must remark that perhaps the most compelling bit of Ms. Olden and Mr. Cladera’s vision for the night was the inclusion of John Millington Synge’s play Riders to the Sea, which, almost word for word, provides the libretto for Mr. Williams’ opera of the same name.  Neatly organized by the steady hand of stage director Gregory Lehane, the evening opened with the presentation of Mr. Synge’s play, depicting the Irish matriarch, Maurya, as she learns the sea has taken her last two surviving sons.  The set was bleak and simple; a large wooden disc nestled in the corner of the Pittsburgh Opera’s George Rowland White Opera Studio, flanked by bare lathed walls with exposed pine studs.  The use of an authentic wind machine (borrowed, I learned, from the Pittsburgh Symphony) set a rather satisfying organic, analogue mood, and effectively pulled me into the world of Maurya’s hovel near the shore of Inishmore.

Actress Laurie Klatscher performed beautifully as the aging Maurya, never overacting in a role that may have tempted many to do so.  Ms. Klatscher’s performance holistically captured the essence of the hysterical old woman, gripped by ignorant superstition and trapped in her mundane world, cowering by the dispassionate sea as it gobbled up all the men in her family.  Ms. Klatscher was accompanied by Tressa Glover (as Cathleen) and Brandi Welle (as Nora), who struggled slightly to keep up with Ms. Klatscher’s accomplished air, but nonetheless each performed capably in her own right.  The least comfortable in his role was baritone Sean Lenhart (as Bartley, the last of Maurya’s sons to be consumed by the sea), who was part of the dual-cast, reprising his role in the opera, following the play.

The clearest division between the dramatic cast and the operatic cast, was in the ability to assume an accurate dialect, or accent.  I find that one of the dangers of performing in a dialect, particularly one so strong as a rural Irish accent, makes for serious inconsistency and stymies comprehension.  Last night, my ears finally having become acclimatized to the very convincing phonemes of the three leading ladies, less capable performances very suddenly threw off the scales, and left me unable to understand much of what was being said.

As the play drew to a close, the overture of Mr. Williams’ operatic setting sprang up and a parallel cast approached the stage, assuming the places of their straight-acting doppelgängers by ritualistically accepting props and costume pieces before beginning again, from the top, with music.  While the operatic cast sang strongly, re-imagined by mezzo-soprano Mary Beth Sederberg as Maurya, soprano Gail Novak Mosites as Cathleen and Leah Edmondson Dyer as Nora, I felt as though the commanding drama that the actors in the play had driven all but evaporated, replaced by the infusion of music, which can often provide a convenient smokescreen for a lack of depth and substance in the acting ability of the singers.  Interestingly enough, Mr. Lenhart, who reprised his role as Bartley, this time employing perfect English diction set within a rich, sharp baritone, came to the stage with a refreshing confidence both in his face and in his voice.  I think my favorite moment over all, was the entrance of the chorus of mourning women, who had simply moaned and groaned in the play, and now sang in a chesty polyphony, accented beautifully by capable soloist Sahsa Piastro.

Presenting the play and the opera that it inspired made for an enjoyable and stimulating exercise in theater-going.

Then came Lizbeth.

Let me be clear: most of what I did not like about Lizbeth, lay in what I found to be a very uninteresting score and an oppressively obvious treatment of the themes in Lindé Hayen Herman’s overly imaginative libretto by composer Thomas Albert.  The reigning stars of the production were Lizbeth, sung by soprano-turned-radio-host Anna Singer, who is well known in the region not only as an accomplished vocalist but as the mid-day host and music programmer for Pittsburgh’s WQED-FM, and lyric contralto Daphne Alderson, who played Lizzie’s hauntingly stoic step-mother, Abby.  Undoubtedly, Ms. Singer stole the show with a professional air of confidence and accomplishment that outweighed most of her co-stars and provided a strong anchor for some of the less tastefully acted moments by others.  The high point of Ms. Alderson’s performance was in a paranoid duet with Andrew Borden (portrayed by Ray Blackwell), in which she recounts the time that Lizzie tried to poison her.  This moment was second only to her gripping spoken monologue, which was meant to illustrate how Mrs. Borden may have driven Lizzie to murder.

Jillian K. Marini portrayed Lizzie Borden as a child with an effective doll-like spookiness, while company co-founder Erica Olden represented Lizzie in her middle stage, as an allegedly troubled, homicidal young woman.  Unfortunately, while Ms. Olden sang but two notes and spoke very little dialogue, I found her exaggerated facial expressions somewhat cartoonish, and left confused as to the final intention and direction of the drama.  Was it supposed to be funny?

Moments that might have been read as dramatic—indeed as disturbing—instead came across as silly, bordering on gag-lines.  In more than one instance, it felt like one of those moments in a comedic film, when the fourth wall comes down and the actor looks straight into the camera, as though to acknowledge the absurdity of the situation to the audience.  Yes, most of us have heard of Lizzie Borden and know what she might have done, but in acknowledging these facts so blatantly, with the occasional stabbing glance at the audience, what are we left with to explore in the mystery of who she really was?

4 thoughts on “An Exploratory Double Bill in Theatre and Music

  1. Wow. I was shocked by your review. I feel you missed the point of this whole production. I saw Riders/Lizbeth on opening night Friday and was blown away by it. I would have to say it was one of the most affecting opera experiences I can remember.

    Seeing the play/opera juxtaposition of Riders to the Sea was, I thought, simply a brilliant exposition of the two forms. The performances in the dual pieces were, generally speaking, top notch, but more importantly, the IDEA of putting the drama on side-by-side with the opera was truly inspirational, providing for the audience a new and potent experience of being able to directly compare the two art forms directly. The obvious result of this comparison was an appreciation that the opera form provided a more emotional, personal, subjective experience, while the play form allowed the gritty second-person realistic view of humanity to shine through. This distinction was an obvious insight that came out of this production, and was mentioned by several people to me after the show. The fact that it was absent from your review raises questions about your credibility as an opera critic, in my view. At any rate, it is no small feat to create new insightful experiences. That, in my opinion is the definition of art and it is becoming increasingly hard to find, at least I am finding it so. To experience it at an opera production in Pittsburgh was refreshing on two counts.

    I personally found Lizbeth even more compelling, although in a somewhat different way. To me the brilliance of this piece was in presenting a 4-dimensional (space-time) view of this particular intriguing character in human history. Seeing the young (innocent), adult (homicidal) and elderly (delusional) Lizzies interpreting and enacting the same set of events simultaneously, I found to be a powerful vehicle for exploring this character, and I felt this was done perfectly by the trio of Ms. Marini, Ms. Olden and Ms. Singer. In particular, I found the scene where Ms. Singer was scrubbing the stain off of the dress of Ms. Olden (after her pigeons had been decapitated by her father) incredibly gripping. Seeing the older Lizzy remembering her reaction to that event with panic and trepidation of her father’s reaction to the bloody dress (or possibly of her own emotional reaction at the time) while simultaneously witnessing (what I perceived to be the “true” emotional state of) the young adult Lizzy being driven to a psychotic rage (as expressed with creepy realism by Ms. Olden) at the butchering of her pets by her father, sent my emotions and thoughts in a tailspin.

    There are many people who insist that opera is a dying art form, and really very few people who strongly disagree with them. (How many times can someone watch the Magic frickin Flute?) I believe this slow death is occurring primarily because of the stranglehold that opera purists like yourself seem to have on the art form. There are very few really talented and professional opera companies in the world who are trying to change that, and Pittsburgh should be proud to host one of them in the Microscopic Opera Company.

    1. DrDee, thanks for your comments and critique.

      I would like to point out that our writer did not omit a reference about the unique presentation of the play and opera. Paragraph six says it “made for an enjoyable and stimulating exercise in theater-going.”

      We applaud Microscopic Opera for the bold and unique presentation. They join many other opera companies around the country who are working to add new repertoire to the cannon and present works in smaller spaces or interesting ways: Opera Company of Philadelphia, Gotham Chamber Opera, Fort Worth Opera, and many more. As a native ‘Pittsburgher,’ I’m very proud of the fact that the city has several opera companies. I’m sorry to say that I haven’t been in town to catch any of Microscopic Opera’s performances.

      We have asked our audience over the past few years whether they think opera is a dying art form and have concluded that it is a ‘glass half-full/half-empty’ subject area. There are many opinions on the matter and it all depends on your geographical context. If you lived in Cleveland you may think opera is dying because of the loss of two great opera companies in the past few years. On the other hand, if you lived in Memphis you may be intrigued by the virility of opera because of the 30 days of opera performances going on in the region.

      When an opera company begins to explore unique presentations and new works they are subject to constructive criticism. Every opera had it’s premiere and underwent a critique or two (no one loved Carmen when it opened). We ask our writers to write from their point of view and give honest feedback. The great thing about art is that it is subjective because it creates (hopefully) stimulating dialogue. These types of presentation may attract more criticism due to the fact that a company is exploring a new frontier. From a journalistic stand point, this can be daunting because you could write a dissertation about the performance and experience. In this instance, our writer decided to focus more on the individual performances rather than the experience as a whole.

      The smaller opera companies like Microscopic Opera are pushing this art form in new ways and I think we both agree that it’s a very honorable job.

    2. Dear DrDee,

      I am thrilled to see that you have read my review. It is very exciting to know that people are taking their experience with the arts seriously, and that this experience is motivating them to explore and engage with other reactions. Undoubtedly, your experience on Friday night was much different than my experience on Thursday night, which is great! In my opinion, as OperaPulse has asserted on my behalf, a thoughtful review should instigate a discussion. I strongly believe that an educated and sophisticated assessment of the arts must take the form of a dialogue, and not of a stark and biased opinion or a consultation of the “rules.” After all, the rules are made to be broken, and The Microscopic Opera company deserves a great deal of praise for their innovative approach and well thought out programming. I think that if you re-read my review a bit more critically, you will find it there. You may be right, perhaps I did miss the point of the evening. But, I would ask you to extend to me the same courtesy, and consider that there may be something deeper in my review.

      What I am most interested in achieving as a critical writer, is to channel the experience of having been there, rather than a simple synopsis of what happened or an irrational string comments about how I might have done it differently. My article is true to the experience I had on Thursday night, the questions that arose as I absorbed the subtle facets of the performance, and the opportunities I saw in attempting to answer those questions for myself.

      A critical review should be a challenge to an artist to look to him or herself and seek out what may have caused a particular reaction. It is a call to improve, or, perhaps, evolve, as there is no definitive “right” or “wrong,” but an ongoing back and forth between the work and the observer. That said, our work should never endeavor to merely appease or entertain, or serve the popular consensus, but should aim to educate, illuminate and enlighten in a way that inspires a inquisitive openness on the part of the observer. We as artists should be seeking to improve ourselves, by encouraging our audience to do the same.

      You may be surprised to know that I am by no means an opera “purist.” In fact, I would consider myself to be anything but an opera scholar, and am a composer and conductor of avant-garde contemporary classical music, with over a decade of professional experience in the music business. That’s a fair amount of time to form a perception of what “works” and what leaves too many questions unanswered or too many unclear choices suspended in the air. Breaking with expectations and challenging the status quo are the tools of my trade; my colleagues in The Microscopic Opera Company strongly uphold these values. I quite agree with all of your points on what works about Lizbeth, but my insight comes not as an operagoer, but primarily as a composer, and as I say in my review, I found many strong performances shone brilliantly in TMOC’s production; from within a largely unsuccessful composition.

      What I hope, at the least, is that my review inspires my readers to go and see Riders to the Sea and Lizbeth for themselves, and join in the exciting dialogue that keeps this type of operatic presentation very much alive. The Microscopic Opera Company will achieve unparalleled success, if the discussion continues, regardless of the reactions therein.

    3. Dear DrDee,

      I am thrilled to see that you have read my review. It is very exciting to know that people are taking their experience with the arts seriously, and that this experience is motivating them to explore and engage with other reactions. Undoubtedly, your experience on Friday night was much different than my experience on Thursday night, which is great! In my opinion, as OperaPulse has asserted on my behalf, a thoughtful review should instigate a discussion. I strongly believe that an educated and sophisticated assessment of the arts must take the form of a dialogue, and not of a stark and biased opinion or a consultation of the “rules.” After all, the rules are made to be broken, and The Microscopic Opera company deserves a great deal of praise for their innovative approach and well thought out programming. I think that if you re-read my review a bit more critically, you will find it there. You may be right, perhaps I did miss the point of the evening. But, I would ask you to extend to me the same courtesy, and consider that there may be something deeper in my review.

      What I am most interested in achieving as a critical writer, is to channel the experience of having been there, rather than a simple synopsis of what happened or an irrational string comments about how I might have done it differently. My article is true to the experience I had on Thursday night, the questions that arose as I absorbed the subtle facets of the performance, and the opportunities I saw in attempting to answer those questions for myself.

      A critical review should be a challenge to an artist to look to him or herself and seek out what may have caused a particular reaction. It is a call to improve, or, perhaps, evolve, as there is no definitive “right” or “wrong,” but an ongoing back and forth between the work and the observer. That said, our work should never endeavor to merely appease or entertain, or serve the popular consensus, but should aim to educate, illuminate and enlighten in a way that inspires a inquisitive openness on the part of the observer. We as artists should be seeking to improve ourselves, by encouraging our audience to do the same.

      You may be surprised to know that I am by no means an opera “purist.” In fact, I would consider myself to be anything but an opera scholar, and am a composer and conductor of avant-garde contemporary classical music, with over a decade of professional experience in the music business. That’s a fair amount of time to form a perception of what “works” and what leaves too many questions unanswered or too many unclear choices suspended in the air. Breaking with expectations and challenging the status quo are the tools of my trade; my colleagues in The Microscopic Opera Company strongly uphold these values. I quite agree with all of your points on what works about Lizbeth, but my insight comes not as an operagoer, but primarily as a composer, and as I say in my review, I found many strong performances shone brilliantly in TMOC’s production; from within a largely unsuccessful composition.

      What I hope, at the least, is that my review inspires my readers to go and see Riders to the Sea and Lizbeth for themselves, and join in the exciting dialogue that keeps this type of operatic presentation very much alive. The Microscopic Opera Company will achieve unparalleled success, if the discussion continues, regardless of the reactions therein.

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