By Keith Powers
BOSTON – If you think our healthcare system is messed up, consider what happens in Burke & Hare. Julian Grant’s new opera, premiered Nov. 8 by the Boston Lyric Opera in the splendidly re-imagined Cyclorama at the Boston Center for the Arts, paints an amusingly grim picture of the medical industry in early 19th-century Scotland.
A surgery school needs cadavers for study, and pays so well for them that entrepreneurs – like the unprincipled Burke and Hare – “create” cadavers to meet the demand.
Burke & Hare – actual title, The Nefarious, Immoral but Highly Profitable Enterprise of Mr. Burke & Mr. Hare – is a collaboration between Grant and librettist Mark Campbell. It’s an inspired pairing, and the duo has created an opera – really an operetta, in one continuous, through-composed act – that sparkles in the pit and has characters, both live and dead ones, who sing meaningfully. Matched with a terrific staging from director David Schweizer and set designer Caleb Wertenbaker, Burke & Hare is fun to watch and even more fun to listen to.
It’s a real-life tale, as the low-lifes Burke (baritone Jesse Blumberg) and Hare (bass Craig Colclough) did patrol Edinburgh’s Old Town in the early 1800s, producing cadavers for the notorious Dr. Knox (the estimable tenor William Burden) for a fee. The entire enterprise got unraveled, as it does in the opera: Burke was hanged, Knox disgraced, and the system for cadaver acquisition was reformed.
The stage set for Burke & Hare is a thing of beauty. The Cyclorama gets re-done as a surgical theater, antiseptically white. Behind the main playing space, characters occasionally occupy viewing tiers fitted with railings. The audience arcs around the players on the other side.
The stage serves both as Burke & Hare’s pub hangout, where they ply most of their victims with whisky, and as the surgical school, where Dr. Knox blathers about “knowledge” to his assistant Ferguson (baritone David McFerrin) and shushes any discussion about where his study subjects come from.
The composer gives the unscrupulous Dr. Knox the cleanest vocal lines, and Burden didn’t waste the star treatment. The role sat comfortably in the range of his bell-like tenor. McFerrin, as his increasingly unnerved assistant, also sang with force.
Both Blumberg and Colclough sang remarkably in character in the title roles as the plotting partners only interested in pleasing their ladies (realized stoutly in support by mezzo-soprano Heather Gallagher and soprano Michelle Trainor).
But Burke & Hare is more about the dead than the living. The cadavers never leave the stage: They are there when the audience files in, and they’re probably still there now, lurking as visible reminders, never leaving our consciousness. Each sang and acted with distinction. Bass-baritone David Cushing (Donald, the first source of profit for Burke and Hare) filled the room with warm, rich tones. It was another role perfectly suited for his instrument.
Tenor Michael Slattery, as Daft Jamie, sang in deep character as the idiot-savant whose death begins the unraveling of the enterprise. His farewell aria – delivered with sensitivity from atop the dissection table, and exquisitely accompanied by violist Don Krishnaswami in a virtuosic, double-stopped tour de force – was a highlight. Sopranos Marie McLaughlin and Antonia Tamer and mezzo-soprano Emma Sorenson played other victims beautifully, and to the hilt.
Grant’s instrumental score is endlessly inventive. Conductor David Angus led the chamber orchestra – heavy on winds, horns, and percussion, with only three, low string players – from a spot nestled into the surgical theater, partially visible. Duos, trios, and solos from the pit maintained an unceasing flow of elegant, understated accompaniment.
Campbell’s libretto manages to negotiate a trail that keeps the murders from becoming either melodrama or farce. Each of the cadavers is sympathetic. Burke and Hare are without conscience. The surgeons are both complicit. All that gets carefully outlined, and the characters seem real and believable.
But Campbell keeps Burke & Hare from being preachy or trite, instead weaving an entertaining tale of a grim and thankfully abandoned practice.
The Boston Lyric Opera presents The Nefarious, Immoral but Highly Profitable Enterprise of Mr. Burke & Mr. Hare through Nov. 12 in the Cyclorama at the Boston Center for the Arts. For tickets and information, go here.
Keith Powers covers music and the arts for GateHouse Media and WBUR’s ARTery. Follow @PowersKeith; email to email@example.com.