“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?