Opera Annex: Jack Beeson | Lizzie Borden

BLO Commission, A New Chamber Version in Seven Scenes

November 20-24, 2013

A Chamber Version in Seven Scenes
Music by Jack Beeson; Libretto by Kenward Elmslie
Based on a Scenario by Richard Plant
Realized by Todd Bashore (orchestration) and John Conklin (dramaturgy)
Sung in English with projected text

November 20, 22, 23, 24m, 2013
The Castle at Park Plaza | 130 Columbus Avenue, Boston
Evening performances at 7:30 p.m. Matinees (m) at 3 p.m.

Fall River, Massachusetts has never forgotten the infamous crime. When Lizzie Borden was arrested for the brutal murder of her father and stepmother, the New England village became the focus of the nation. The jurors at Lizzie’s trial did not deliberate long, but  in the court of public opinion, debate still rages about her guilt or innocence.

BLO has commissioned a new chamber version in seven scenes of Jack Beeson’s score, which reveals the disturbing power and undeniable theatricality of his opera. Christopher Alden directs this world premiere with Heather Johnson as Lizzie and Caroline Worra as her stepmother. The Boston Globe has called the Opera Annex an “increasingly essential series” and subscribers receive first access to tickets.

Creative Team
Conductor David Angus
Stage Director Christopher Alden
Wigs and Makeup Designer Jason Allen
Set Designer Andrew Holland*
Costume Designer Terese Wadden*
Lighting Designer Allen Hahn*

Andrew Borden Daniel Mobbs
Abigail Borden Caroline Worra
Lizzie Borden Heather Johnson
Margret Borden Chelsea Basler#
Captain Jason McFarlane David McFerrin#
Reverend Harringon Omar Najmi#

#BLO Emerging Artist 
*BLO Debut

First Violins Clarinet/Bass Clarinet
Sandra Kott Concertmaster Steven Jackson Acting Principal
Heidi Braun-Hill
Second Violins Donald Bravo Principal
Sue Rabut Acting Principal
Jodi Hagen French Horn
Sarah Sutherland Acting Principal
Kenneth Stalberg Principal Trumpet
Donna Jerome Jesse Levine Acting Principal
Cello Trombone/Euphonium
Loewi Lin Principal Robert Couture Principal
Bass Timpani
Robert Lynam Principal Jeffrey Fischer Principal
Flute/Piccolo Percussion 
Lisa Hennessy Acting Principal Jeffrey Fischer Acting Principal
Nancy Smith
Oboe/English Horn
Mary Cicconetti Acting Principal Harp
Ina Zdorovetchi Principal

Handel and Haydn Youth & Women’s Chorus

Clary Binns Sarah Newhall
Julie Cavallo Caroline Pingeton
Madison Govaert Bridgett Sanchez
Lauren Kagan Luna Zhang
Miranda Mehta

PALS Children’s chorus

Maya Prabhakar with
Noah Sesling Christian Cassiano
Jean Furman
 Clark Rubinshtein
Abigail Tenebaum

Lizzie Andrew Borden was tried and acquitted in the 1892 axe murders of her father and stepmother in Fall River, Massachusetts. There has been controversy ever since about her guilt or innocence. Jack Beeson and Kenward Elmslie in their opera Lizzie Borden leave no doubt about her murderous culpability, while changing a few details of the well-known story for theatrical reasons. An older sister, Emma, becomes a younger sister, Margaret. A suitor for Margaret is created – the sea captain Jason McFarland. And a psychologically convincing backstory for the step-mother, Abbie (her subservient and deeply resented role as a servant-nurse to the dying first Mrs. Borden, Lizzie’s mother) is developed. The Beeson piece was first performed in 1965 as a three act opera. In a one act adaptation, Lizzie Borden: A New Chamber Version in Seven Scenes commissioned by Boston Lyric Opera, will be premiered as the Opera Annex production this season.

Scene 1
A children’s choir from the Old Harbour Church is rehearsing, as Reverend Harrington seeks Lizzie’s aid in getting a donation from her father Andrew Borden, “the richest man in town.” But Lizzie tells him that since the arrival of Abigail, Lizzie’s stepmother, he has turned away from the church. Andrew arrives home and roughly pushes aside Lizzie’s request for a new dress for the Missions Meeting “No, Elizabeth, it is nothing but vanity.” He spells out his credo: “I am elected. Wealth falls upon me. The Lord has blessed me. Waste not…want not.”

Scene 2
Abbie appears “elegantly dressed…descends the stairs like ruling royalty.” Dinner is served, grace spoken, as Lizzie stares at Abbie with “unconcealed envy and dislike…her face a mask…her body rigid.” Abbie laughs.

Scene 3
Lizzie is told by Margaret that Captain Jason McFarlane is to come tonight to ask Andrew for her hand in marriage. Margaret is anxious and fearful…. “the walls watch as I sleep…whispers and laughter….I lie awake, alone with the dark shadows of fear” and she prays for the day when Jason will take her away.

Scene 4
After dinner, Abbie accompanying herself at the reed organ, sings a parlor ballad “Oh, Nightingale of Sweet Romance” to charm Andrew, but her bitterness at the lingering presence of the deceased Evangeline, and her angry resentment of Evangeline’s two daughters, keeps breaking out. She convinces Andrew to remove the portrait of his first wife from the parlor wall. Jason and the Reverend arrive, and in a tense encounter Jason asks for Margaret’s hand. Andrew cruelly refuses and offers up Lizzie instead. Humiliated and left alone, Lizzie breaks down. “What am I forbidden? Must see no one. No one but father, Keep watch Father and I’ll watch you keep watch….I’ll hide…I’ll breath water, swallow earth….Lizzie has a body… Lizzie has a head….Lizzie’s cut to pieces…Lizzie must be dead.”

Scene 5
Lizzie works on her mother’s wedding dress which she has brought down from the attic to alter to fit Margaret. Jason, ignoring Andrew’s edicts, plans an escape for just  the two of them. Left alone again, Lizzie tries on the white dress and erotically envisions herself as Jason’s lover. Caught by Abbie in this sensuous reverie, Lizzie suffers the taunts of her stepmother who threatens to tell Andrew “how I found you…in Evangeline’s wedding regalia…wishing for hands like warm…”

Scene 6
Jason arrives to gather up his letters to Margaret and finds Lizzie in a disturbed state, convinced that the letters were meant for her. He leaves them behind. Abbie once again taunts Lizzie. “…gone?…gone for good? Looks like he’s gone and left you.” Abbie retires. Lizzie wanders distractedly, finally seizing a weapon, she goes into the bedroom after her. Andrew returns and Lizzie reappears wrapped in a shawl which slips from her revealing the white dress  soaked with blood. “We are safe now, Abbie is no longer with us. Mother would be pleased. Abbie is forbidden….Must not soil my wedding dress.” Andrew rushes past her into the bedroom. Lizzie follows.Scene 7   A trial has acquitted Lizzie but the town has ostracized her. She is at her father’s desk going over accounts. “Count up the columns of hours and days that turn into months and years that lead to no – where.” Reverend Harrington returns Lizzie’s contribution to the church and brings a letter from Margaret. Lizzie coolly shows him out and locks the door behind. Outside children’s voices are heard: “Lizzie Borden took an axe and gave her mother forty whacks. When she saw what she had done, she…”

Background Story: The Murder and the Trial

Lizzie Borden: An American Icon
BLO Dramaturg Magda Romanska talks to Cheree Carlson, a professor of Communication and Gender Studies at Arizona State University

Lizzie Borden: Production Guide 

Not unexpectedly there is a lot of material out there on this most notorious, ambiguous, shocking (unsolved?) crime.

A few choices:


Lizzie Borden Documentary
Arnold Brown’s Theory of the Lizzie Borden Case
Lizzie Borden – Ed McBain’s theory

Another Lizzie
Agnes de Mille’s ballet FALL RIVER LEGEND premiered in 1948. There is a DVD of a 1989 performance by The Dance Theater of Harlem with Virginia Johnson giving a powerful and eloquent portrayal of Lizzie expressed in pure movement. The ballet with a somewhat generic score by Morton Gould is perhaps too often redolent of OKLAHOMA (choreographed by de Mille) with its jolly hoedowns and at times a bit overly melodramatic but  it has its strengths and it is definitely worth a look. This same performance turns up on Youtube DANSE THEATRE OF HARLEM “FALL RIVER LEGEND”.