Serial killers have always fascinated us; they can animate a musical like Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street or Duncan Sheik’s musical of American Psycho. Film is full of such horrors—but are there any in the world of opera?
There is now.
A serial killer strikes again and again and again in Kevin Puts and Mark Campbell’s opera Elizabeth Cree, now having its world premiere at Opera Philadelphia.
Leaping way beyond kinky sex, serial killers land into a ghoulish extension of domination taken to its macabre extremity. Writing in the Oct. 24, 2014 edition of Scientific American, Scott Bonn blithely states “The FBI estimates that there are between 25 and 50 serial killers operating throughout the U.S. at any given time.”
If there are indeed 50, and let’s assume that they each kill four people a year, the grand total of victims, 200, is only a drop in the bucket of blood and carnage that the 2011 Uniform Crime Report sets at 15,000 murders per year. So, if you are murdered this year, chances are slim that a serial killer did it.
In Elizabeth Cree, adapted from Peter Ackroyd's 1995 novel The Trial of Elizabeth Cree, the identity of the killer is as ambiguous as the gender identity of Cree herself. Is her love-sodden husband the killer or is it Cree in the male identity she assumes at night to prowl the streets?
Not that it matters to the dead, but adding in a transgender amuse-bouche brings this mystery, set in Victorian England, right to the headlines of today’s deplorable Kulturkampf.
Mark Campbell’s taut, poetic libretto divides the one-act opera into 29 scenes, with a running time of about 90 minutes. The plot shuttle between the past and present, between Elizabeth’s trial for murdering her husband and her serendipitous journey from a homeless and previously abused child to Vaudeville star, and finally to being an arm-candy wife to the wealthy Mr. Cree. The opera abounds in ironies, including some pointed barbs at critics and feminism, while making the murders a divinely inspired mission to release the souls of the victims from the bondage of the flesh.
As Elizabeth, the gloriously voiced mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack dominates the opera. Admittedly, she is the leading character and is almost always on the stage. However, she would dominate the opera if she only had a brief appearance and just a few lines to sing.
As her husband, Troy Cook uses his stentorian baritone to give great gravity and stature to a character that is basically a simple stage-door Johnny.
The thicket of thespians that make up the vaudeville troupe Elizabeth joins are a beautifully defined group of talented roustabouts. Campbell establishes their widely varied characters in a few introductory sentences given when Elizabeth first joins them.
Joseph Gaines brings unexpected gravitas to the role of comedian Dan Leno, the “whippersnapper, clog dancer, funny man…”; Deanna Belcher is divine as the coloratura soprano, Aveline, the “wide-eyed warbler”; Little Victor, played with charm and a pinch of pathos by Jason Ferrante, is the “Maître de Magic…slight of height, And sleight of hand, but never slight of heart.” Mat Boehler is Uncle, a “ventriloquist supreme”; and Melissa Parks is hysterical as a pleasingly plump Doris, who is, incongruously, a tightrope walker.
They are, indeed, a family like no other.
The murders are shown in a projection on the rear of the stage. They are in black and white except for the bright red bloody entrails, dripping with the gore that so inflames the killer.
Kevin Puts’ music ties this all together, leaving little trace of the 29-scene structure by subtly changing the mood to what is to come. His style is like a Janus—he uses neo-romantic tonal/modal harmonies, with soaring melodies, set over minimalist energy. It is a combination of two basically tonal musical styles that differ widely but are blended like chemicals in the presence of a reagent until neither is individually identifiable, and a new and unique musical voice is created.
Conductor Corrado Rovaris is a superb collaborator for Puts’ musical vision. His economical baton technique imbues energy in even the slightest movement. Even better, his anticipatory upbeats tell of what is to come rather than where we have been.
Puts opens the opera with a telling descending fourth. This interval reveals much about what is to come. In traditional harmony, it is less declarative and weaker in intent than its bossy big brother—the perfect fifth. But on the other hand, it conveys absolution in that this interval makes up the familiar “Amen.” It is followed by an ascending major third, the so-called “happy interval,” implying that better times are ahead. And so they are until everything comes crashing down for Mrs. Cree.
Thus, the three opening notes tell us that:
- The language of Cree will be tonal.
- Nothing heroic will occur.
- The protagonist concedes to be absolved by an “amen” from the very first notes.
- Things will appear to go well.
Considering how much is said in such a few notes, one can only imagine what a close perusal of the score would tell us about what is going on, as well as why. What are the underlying motivations and emotions of the action?
Puts wields the remarkable small chamber music like a racecar driver in a Lamborghini. There is never a moment when the viewer regrets that financial considerations didn’t permit larger forces. They would have overwhelmed the plot.
Who knows what future musicologists will call this new musical voice? No matter how you describe it or name it, it is most welcome to an Elliot Carter-weary world and completely worthy of the Pulitzer Prize that was awarded for the first Puts/Campbell collaboration, the touching opera Silent Night (they’ve also created an opera of The Manchurian Candidate).
While the subject of the opera is horrifying, it is rarely gratuitous. Instead it is a character study of those on the margins of society, lust gone psychotic, and the main character’s descent into madness.
And what is a tragic death-filled opera without a mad scene? Puts and Campbell give us a doozy at the end. Mack pulls out all the stops, musically and dramatically, and eats this juicy scene whole. It is the most terrifying moment in this grisly opera.
The ending delivers an O. Henry-esque twist that I will not spoil here.
It warrants a trip to Opera Philadelphia’s Festival O, of which Cree is one of seven operatic works presented in various venues across the city over 12 days. Look for my report on several of the other offerings coming on TheaterJones.