Review: BLO Presents a Historically Hair-Raising and Highly Entertaining World Premiere
By Doug Hall, Contributing Writer, November 10, 2017
For Boston Lyric Opera’s latest production, The Nefarious, Immoral but Highly Profitable Enterprise of Mr. Burke & Mr. Hare, the mood is set immediately upon entering the circular rotunda of the Cyclorama at the Boston Center for the Arts, with the all-white stage set, floor and curtains. The half-moon stage floor and space around the stage allowed the “haunted victims of the grisly murders” to stalk onto the stage in a ghost-like trance foretelling a true sensational episode from the 1820s in Edinburgh, Scotland, of a murder-for-profit scheme hatched by two desperate and greedy working-class men, William Burke and William Hare. Set in the gallery of an anatomy school with the dissection table front and center, intended as a bold statement of set design, it also serves as a reminder of the historical need for dissecting bodies for burgeoning anatomy schools during this time in Edinburgh’s history. The demand for corpses created a “pay for cadaver” relationship, with doctors on the side of demand, and the enterprising villains on the side of supply. Composer Julian Grant and librettist Mark Campbell take you into the atmosphere of this dark and comic modern opera very quickly to chilling effect. As the “victims” continue to wander on stage in their whitened clothes and faces with death stares through blackened eye sockets, they begin to stare back at the audience with blame. Boston Lyric Opera’s production offers a powerful physical staging that echoes the macabre tale to come, before the first operatic voice is sounded.
Returning BLO baritone Jesse Blumberg (William Burke), and making his BLO debut, bass-baritone Craig Colclough (William Hare), both fill their roles with cockney gestures, well-timed mannerisms, and body language that transports us into the streets and pubs of Edinburgh. Mr. Blumberg and Mr. Colclough, both with superbly trained operatic voices, offer a human-like edge and pronouncement as the sensational lyrics spill from their character’s mouths. With our two title characters leading marginalized lives, little imagination is necessary to envision the densely populated dirty streets and tenement houses of the industrial-age existence of the poor. Early on, the somewhat bumbling duo of Burke and Hare hatch the idea of the crime scheme with their partners, played by soprano Michelle Trainor (Helen McDougal) and mezzo-soprano Heather Gallagher (Mrs. Hare). Both Trainor and Gallagher are as convincing in operatic range as they are in their character’s glee. Both delivering a ‘devil may care’ fun in their rough body language with their partners, showing their greed as they envision what to buy with their expected new riches.
As each victim introduces themselves after their individual demise, they all have a story to tell, particularly James Wilson (“Daft Jamie”), lovingly and touchingly played by tenor Michael Slattery. Another standout performance in both voice and appeal for her taken life, is legendary soprano Marie McLaughlin as Abigail Simpson. During her tale, the power of her angry voice and range reaches the rafters of the rotunda ceiling, to stern and damning effect.
The other most dominant presence is internationally renowned tenor William Burden who plays Dr. Knox, the anatomy school surgeon. With great Machiavellian arrogance and calculating coldness, Burden’s Dr. Knox exhibits no concern regarding the victim’s lives, but only the need for more bodies for his “advancement to the cause of science.” Burden’s booming tenor soars with declarations of self-righteousness for the cause for medical advancement at any cost. Dr. Knox’s assistant, Dr. Ferguson, played by baritone David McFerrin with stern resolve and remorse, becomes the voice of reason as he recognizes victims “Daft Jamie” and Mary Patterson, a young prostitute (Emma Sorenson), sparking a confrontation with Dr. Knox, still thirsty for more human supply.
As the audience watches our two greedy villains, Mr. Burke and Mr. Hare, with their overzealous accomplices, stumble into mistakenly exposing a corpse to prospective lodgers at their boarding house, a wonderful farce of realization is performed. All four on stage seem clueless as to their careless behavior, as the police are called and they realize their downfall upon arrest. The final act, following historical accuracy, reveals an uneven justice, played out on stage. The audience watches as Mr. Hare goes free (having turned state evidence against Mr. Burke), as he happily waves goodbye with joy and laughter, while the patsy, Mr. Burke, steps towards the dissection table while undressing with his torso already outlined with markings for anatomy class, as he will be publicly hanged, and then dissected himself.
The score by Julian Grant and libretto by Mark Campbell delivers and succeeds in this collaborative effort, making a theatrical vision that “walks the line between the dark and the vaudevillian, the macabre and the entertaining.” Conductor David Angus, Music Director of the Boston Lyric Opera, helmed the proceedings brilliantly, with a minimal open orchestral area (behind the performing space), punctuating the grim moments and setting impassioned tones for the various victims confessions.
The BLO is to be commended for fearlessly choosing to present the world premiere of this macabre true-life tale. It is best summed up by stage director David Schweizer when he states the result is “a most sublime challenge, bringing to life a brand-new story – for its very first audience…a rich story with black comic, outlandish aspects against heart-breaking incidents.” So be sure to catch one of the remaining performances and enjoy every gory detail.
The Nefarious, Immoral but Highly Profitable Enterprise of Mr. Burke & Mr. Hare presented by the Boston Lyric Opera at the Cyclorama at the Boston Center for the Arts, 539 Tremont Street, Boston, MA through November 12, 2017. Music by Julian Grant, libretto by Mark Campbell. Conducted by David Angus; stage direction by David Schweizer; set design by Caleb Wertenbaker; costume design by Nancy Leary; lighting design by Robert Wierzel; movement direction by Melinda Sullivan; wig and make-up design by Jason Allen.
Cast: William Burden (Dr. Robert Knox), David Mcferrin (Ferguson), Jesse Blumberg (William Burke), Craig Colclough (William Hare), Michelle Trainor (Helen Mcdougal), Heather Gallagher (Margaret Hare), David Cushing (Donald), Marie Mclaughlin (Abigail Simpson), Michael Slattery (James “Daft Jamie” Wilson), Emma Sorenson (Mary Paterson), Antonia Tamer (Madge Docherty).
Cover: (l. to r.) Jesse Blumberg and Craig Colclough in ‘The Nefarious, Immoral but Highly Profitable Enterprise of Mr. Burke & Mr. Hare;’ photo: Liza Voll.