B. Lewis, Faull, Elgar; Beattie, Fredricks, Krause; Cambridge Festival Orchestra, A. Coppola. Television direction: Browning. VAI 4563, 112 mins., no subtitles
One of the great American operas of the post-World War II era, Jack Beeson's Lizzie Borden: A Family Portrait, with its libretto by Kenward Elmslie after a scenario by Richard Plant, was a hit right from the beginning. It was so well received at its 1965 New York City Opera premiere that it was videotaped later that year for Public Television, with its original cast and conductor. VAI has now freed this treasure from the vaults in a version that is visually and aurally pristine.
Beeson and his librettist were concerned with making this opera a strong theatrical experience, and they devised the plot accordingly, using the true events only as a point of departure. Although the real Lizzie was ultimately acquitted, she is clearly guilty of the murders in this version. Nevertheless, she is presented as such a sympathetic, downtrodden figure that the audience remains on her side throughout the opera. Lizzie is shown as a victim of an oppressive father, a coarse stepmother and a puritanical society.
This premiere production was blessed with Brenda Lewis, one of America's great singing actresses, in the title role, and she makes you feel the desperation that drove Lizzie to the point of insanity. A singer of enormous range, Lewis was a true Zwischenfach. Precious little footage of Lewis in performance exists; to be able to see her here in one of her most celebrated roles feels like a gift.
Lewis is surrounded by a fine cast of singing actors, all of them under the expert direction of Kirk Browning and all of them completely comfortable in their roles. Lizzie's stern father, Andrew, is Herbert Beattie, appropriately sour-faced except when faced with the charming blandishments of his second wife, Abigail. Abigail is played by Ellen Faull, who was not afraid to harden her lush lirico spinto sound for her climactic one-on-one confrontation with Lizzie. Faull uses her zaftig figure to emphasize the blowsiness of this opportunistic character, the family's former seamstress who had been sleeping with Andrew in her backstairs bedroom before his first wife's death.
Lizzie's romantic sister Margaret is played by Anne Elgar, who looks lovely, and whose light soprano carries a distinctive, inimitable sweetness in its timbre. The sea captain who sweeps her off her feet and elopes with her, inciting Lizzie's erotic frustration, is the young Richard Fredricks. With his lithe, dashing figure and handsome baritone, he is ideal casting. As the young Reverend Harrington, whose church is one of the few sources of fulfillment in Lizzie's life, tenor Richard Krause poignantly reflects the sadness of the Borden household, which he knows he can never change.
What this telecast demonstrates so beautifully is an ensemble of singing actors adept at scaling down their stage performances for the intimacy of the television studio. How they all achieved this same level of effortless, natural acting for the relatively new medium is a tribute not only to them but to their veteran director, Browning, who had specialized in staging opera for television since the early days of the NBC Opera. Browning was simply one of the unsung masters of the form, and his prowess is on vivid display here — not only in the performances of his cast but in his sense of where to place the camera and how to follow the action as characters weave their way from room to room in the Borden house. At times, Browning's roving camera recalls Hitchcock's in Rebecca,as it prowls the forbidding, oppressive mansion. (We will forgive him the moment when one of the other cameras accidentally noses its way into the frame from the left, then quickly withdraws.)
Anton Coppola, the uncle of Francis Ford Coppola, tautly conducts the Cambridge Festival Orchestra, giving full weight to the tension in Beeson's essentially tonal yet appropriately thorny score. Some of Beeson's music recalls film noirsoundtracks of the previous two decades, which feels right. (Two entr'actes had to be cut for this telecast to fit the opera into its two-hour slot.)
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