BLO's "Burke & Hare": Incisive

The Cast of "Burke & Hare"
(photo: Liza Voll)

Hear ye! Attend the tale of Burke and Hare. That is,The Nefarious, Immoral but Highly Profitable Enterprise of Mr. Burke and Mr. Hare, a marquee buster if there ever was one. It's a dark and stormy opera (in its world premiere) about cadaver supply and demand; think Sweeney Todd but with an added level of import given its underbelly of the treatment of immigrants, relegated to 1828's Edinburgh in its grim Old Town of poverty, while the rich folks enjoyed New Town's elegance. With Music by Julian Grant and Libretto by Mark Campbell, this work was Commissioned by the Music-Theatre Group with the support of Boston Lyric Opera as part of its New Works Initiative, grown out of BLO's Opera Annex. One knows, when Boston Lyric Opera schedules a production in a venue such as the Cyclorama at Boston Center for the Arts (with Set Designer Caleb Wertenbaker strongly suggesting a pure white operatory), you're in for an unusual operatic and theatrical experience. Yet this one is closely based on a darkly true story, with occasional dark humor, as told through the experience of the victims.

Edinburgh's schools of surgery at that time were suffering from a shortage of cadavers for use in dissection lessons, since there were few legal ways to obtain them. Coincidentally, two men, William Hare (bass-baritone Craig Colclough) and William Burke (baritone Jesse Blumberg), find the dead body of Donald (baritone David Cushing), a lodger in the boarding house they help manage. Deciding to sell the corpus delecti to the surgical school run by Dr. Robert Knox (tenor William Burden), they deliver same to Knox's assistant, Dr. Ferguson (baritone David McFerrin). At a local pub, Burke and Hare celebrate their good fortune with their significant others, Helen McDougal (soprano Michelle Trainor) and Margaret Hare (mezzo-soprano Heather Gallagher). They decide to take their efforts to a new level, murdering one of the local pub drunks, Abigail Simpson (soprano Marie McLaughlin). Meanwhile, elsewhere in the pub, Dr. Ferguson engages with a young prostitute he's been courting, Mary Paterson (mezzo-soprano Emma Sorenson). Burke and Hare ply Abigail with whiskey, as she is choked to death and her corpse sold to Knox's school. Local killings escalate, profiting all the main characters. Then the dead body of James “Daft Jamie” Wilson (tenor Michael Slattery) is delivered to Knox's school, making Ferguson voice his suspicions to Knox, who dismisses them. Later when the corpse of his beloved Mary arrives at the school, Ferguson denounces Burke and Hare, but Knox coerces him into complicity. Burke and Hare murder their final victim, Madge Docherty (soprano Antonia Tamer), and are seen by prospective lodgers. They (and Helen and Margaret) are arrested. Knox and Ferguson deny any knowledge of the crime. Only Burke is found guilty and subsequently publicly executed.

The Cast of "Burke & Hare"
(photo: Liza Voll)

Ironically, in real life, Burke was hanged and his body was dissected at the University of Edinburgh; his skeleton has been on display to this day. Throughout the nineteenth century, as the children of London did about the real-life progenitor of Sweeney Todd, children of this city learned a ghoulish nursery rhyme (quoted in the opera program by Lacey Upton):

Up the close and doon the stair,
But and ben' wi' Burke and Hare.
Burke's the butcher, Hare's the thief,
Knox the boy that buys the beef.

One need not worry about “where's the beef?” in this production. As ably Conducted by David Angus, with excellent Stage Direction by David Schweizer, eerie Costume Design by Nancy Leary, complicated Lighting Design by Robert Wierzel, and terrific Movement Direction by Melinda Sullivan, this clocks in at a speedy ninety-five minutes. The music is mostly quite accessible, with notations peculiar to specific actors ( music hall tunes for the two malevolent wives, hurdy-gurdy viola for “Daft Jamie”, a nod to Irish folk music, and so on); even the choice to eliminate the violin and stress the piccolo, for example, underscores the composer's intent. It's obvious how interrelated the work of the creative team of composer Grant, librettist Campbell and finally director Schweizer was in the evolution of this piece.

As for the performances, they are truly impressive. The level of singing, as well as acting and movement are of the highest order. While there's not a clinker in the bunch, as they say, there are some standouts, especially in the case of Burden's Dr. Knox and two memorable victims, Slattery's “Daft Jamie” and Tamer's Docherty. There does appear to be a need for clarification in the beginning of the work, as it's difficult to discern who is who among the quartet of perpetrators (though delineating the victims is handled much more clearly), and the device of having the victims, even before their respective demises, dressed in ghoulish attire makes for a few odd moments (such as when Dr. Ferguson dances with the lower-class ghostly Mary, in a part of town you wouldn't expect such a dignitary to frequent, much less to romance a shrouded partner).

The tag line for the opera declares that the people of Edinburgh are not dying....quickly enough. Burke twice echoes Sweeney Todd's Mrs. Lovett (“what an awful waste” in the prelude to the grimly funny song Have a Little Priest) when he declares “I got a thought”. Wisely, the dispatching of victims consistently occurs off-stage, as “Daft Jamie” sings about turning a blind eye to society's inequality. This taut musical thriller will likely find its proper place on the agendas of many an opera company looking for a challenging yet satisfying example of enjoyable contemporary opera.

Catch it Thursday Nov. 9th at 7:30pm, Friday Nov. 10th at 7pm and on Sunday Nov. 12th at 12 noon and 4:00pm. Before supply is outstripped by demand.

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