You may know the tales of Jack the Ripper and Sweeney Todd, but a broad and rich demented trove of Georgian Gothic melodrama remains to motivate the operatic world. One such story inspired the 19th-century Scottish children’s rhyme:
Up the close and doon the stair,
In the house wi’ Burke and Hare.
Burke’s the butcher, Hare’s the thief,
Knox, the man who buys the beef.
This weekend at Boston’s haunting, cavernous Cyclorama, the Boston Lyric Opera gives the world premiere of Julian Grant’s The Nefarious, Immoral but Highly Profitable Enterprise of Mr. Burke & Mr. Hare. The 20th of Grant’s large dramatic scores, Burke & Hare wraps a witty, thoughtful English libretto in a visually arresting scenic design based on a deconstructed surgical operating theater.
This work showcases historical characters and events from 1820s Edinburgh, and contrasts an austere black-and-white design by Caleb Wertenbaker (for the surgical theater and its victims) with vivid, textured costuming by for the living by Nancy Leary. In 1829, William Burke’s notebook was discovered in a tin box buried under a flagstone near his Edinburgh house: he had kept a written account of the murders and the money he made: several of these details are written out for us by his victims as the opera unfolds. A touch of scarlet adds a gruesome touch to the finale.
This is the Boston Lyric Opera’s most inventive and beautifully constructed new work in years. The action moves in and around one of Edinburgh’s popular “anatomical schools,” describing (but never showing) surgical procedures, and using human dissection as an element of musical construction: David Angus’s excellent chamber orchestra projected many beautiful motives and melodies that slowly deconstruct, dissolve, and float apart. This tale of cold-blooded murder evolves into a picture of a world where the thirst for human knowledge trumps simple humanity.
Through a fascinating narrative and scathing lyrics, librettist Mark Campbell shapes the doctors’ gruesome butchery into a statement about the Georgian era’s rampant corruption and greed. He writes, “One of my earliest storytelling decisions was to have all of the murders – save the last – occur offstage. And although all of the victims were dissected during anatomy lessons, I chose not to show a single incision. Our imagination about such brutality is fiercer than anything the theatrical could muster.” On whether to depict the murderer’s psychopathology, he responds, “I chose not to offer such comfort. From all accounts, these men were motivated solely by profit… it’s one reason that this story feels both timely and of a time: greed never goes out of style.”
Even more powerfully, Julian Grant’s music emphasizes the tragedy consumes and destroys everything it touches. He unifies the score with motives such as “the very first thing you hear – a slithery rising figure – not a theme assigned to a character, but a pervasive destabilizer throughout the whole opera.” He imbues Dr. Knox’s music with “nervous tics” and an occasional “peacock flourish on piano [Brett Hogdon] and harp [Ina Zdorovetchi] to denote his narcissism and self-regard.” Standout soloists in the 12-piece chamber orchestra include “hurdy-gurdy” violist Don Krishnaswami, Margaret Phillips (bassoons), and Jan Halloran (clarinets).
The moody, bright visuals complement ghoulish white pancake makeup with hollowed-out eyes for those who haunt the set. I found the lack of color to be oppressive and claustrophobic, meshing perfectly with the vivid portrayals of spirits living(?) with dark, hollowed-out souls. Stage Director David Schweizer’s penchant to push the gruesome envelope shoves this historical drama outside the realm of darkly comic stage show and into the domain of sanguinary horror-opera.
Stomach churning as all this historical gore is, Burke & Hare also dispenses something even worse: imbuing killing and death with an appealing sheen. The two surgeons (the younger Dr. Ferguson, played by baritone David McFerrin and the elder Dr. Robert Knox, played by the luminous William Burden) played their roles, musically and dramatically, with a wonderful balance between theatrical exaggeration and ready-for-my-close-up intensity. The grimly handsome Dr. Knox, for instance, smoldered with a singular and oddly magnetic passion. He may be an accessory to the murderous title characters, but he made dissecting a fresh corpse look so intensely … fulfilling. The real Dr. Knox was a charismatic, ambitious anatomist who had begun his career in the military hospitals of the Napoleonic Wars and South Africa. Grant allows tenor William Burden a single beautiful, soaring aria to introduce himself (“We must pursue knowledge, above all”), but like his test subjects, his musical lines slowly unroll, separating into small, dissonant fragments. Rather than developing, his melodies are dissected as we observe.
William Hare (bass-baritone Craig Colclough) and his doomed accomplice William Burke (baritone Jesse Blumberg) captivated us through their interrupted ariosos and challenging stretto-filled arguments. The composer uses “an obsessive, obstinate rhythmic figure that renders audible [Hare’s] obsessive striving and plotting.” As viciously funny partners in crime, Margaret Hare (soprano Heather Gallagher) and Helen McDougal (soprano Michelle Trainor) exist in the musical realm of the lower-class musical hall and pantomime: their hysterical duets build tension and propel all of the other characters toward their tragic destinies.
Julian Grant’s music is at its most beautiful in the solo scenes during which victims tells their stories. Donald (in a taught, focused performance by baritone David Cushing), goes first – his name is written first on the surgeon’s chalkboard, and like its shadowy echo on the board (even after being erased and covered with a succession of later names), Cushing’s tragic intensity and lyricism stays with us. Soprano Antonia Tamor (Madge Docherty) brings a pale, insomniac vigor to her ghastly character, and soprano Marie McLaughlin is asked by the composer to “veer from raging incoherence to simple unaccompanied tunes that intensify her heartbreak” in the (drunken) role of Abigail Simpson. Mezzo soprano Emma Sorensen’s intense portrayal of the tragic ingénue Mary Paterson alternates between a young, vulgar prostitute and a frail spirit shining with wraithlike radiance.
The most memorable performance of the evening combined a Bachian chaconne for solo viola with a rambling, half-ballad, half-falsetto street song by tenor Michael Slattery. The role of James Wilson, a kind of “Holy Fool” known as street entertainer “Daft Jamie” in 1820s Edinburgh, contrasted his sunny savant personality with a physical frailty inviting exploitation. Jamie’s scene evoked a Restoration mad song, requiring great beauty and purity of tone and wide dramatic range.
As we lived through each scene’s devastating climax, Stage Director David Schweizer and Lighting Designer Robert Wierzel transformed ghastly death into tableaux of attainable beauty. They fashioned gory creations that ultimately attract instead of repel, subtly calling us to the table. Near the end of the tale, the voices of all five victims combined to form a “choral” policeman’s voice, singing questions made of widely spaced chorales (almost evoking feedback), and gesturing in disparate directions, while forming a “whole” officer. Their voices interwove and separated, recalling their violent ends on the dissection table: but the music is so beautiful, that one couldn’t look away from the writhing body they formed.
Burke and Hare’s story poses a cautionary tale: one choice triggers an avalanche of mayhem and retribution that destroys almost everyone involved. The overall mood of the 90-minute work is eerily compelling, but somehow not a downer: ultimately, Burke, Hare, and Dr. Knox get what they deserve, whether that means disgrace, death, or dissection on the very table they once peopled with corpses.
The run concludes with performances at 12:00 and 4:00 on Sunday.
A longtime advocate of new music, Prichard is a regular pre-opera speaker for the San Francisco Opera and Boston Baroque. She has taught courses on music and theater history at Northeastern University and UMass-Lowell.