Dear readers, I’m feeling no small amount of insecurity as I  write today’s review.  I’m not an opera buff — indeed, I have only just begun my education in the genre since moving to Pittsburgh six years ago — and I don’t feel I know enough about the form, or that I’ve seen (heard?) enough of it, to make adequate assessments of any given production.  Even more fundamentally, I’m still not quite sure how, precisely, to take in opera.  As music?  As spectacle?  As performance? As a theatrical story told by other means? As all of the above?

These questions are only heightened for me — but in no way fully answered — by the mixture of genres on offer at Microscopic Opera Company this month.  The evening is structured as two halves:  in the first half, we see John Millington Synge’s short play Riders to the Sea performed by actors; at its conclusion, the orchestra files in, the three actresses hand talismanic prop and costume pieces over to their operatic doubles, and the story is immediately retold, this time in the operatic version by Ralph Vaughan Williams.  The second half of the evening presents Lizbeth, a chamber music drama by Thomas Albert that explores the family dynamic that produced the Victorian era’s most famous axe-murderess, Lizzie Borden.  The two halves of the program are very different stylistically:  where Riders is steeped in the naturalist tradition, Lizbeth is deliberately anti-realist, building its story out of collage, flashback, and fractured narrative.

The play Riders to the Sea depicts the day Mauryia, the matriarch of an Irish Catholic family, loses the last of her six sons in a drowning accident.  The play is less a plot-driven drama than a quasi-anthropological study of a family in crisis (and of the hardships, rituals, and superstitions of the Aran Islands in the early 20th century).  The dialogue is delivered in a thick Irish dialect, and the language is lilting and seductive, if not always fully comprehensible.  But what’s going on here has less to do with language than with atmosphere and emotional timbre, and the production captures both with nice attention to physical and psychological detail.  Laurie Klatscher is powerful as Mauryia, and her shift at the end of the play from despair to resigned satisfaction that life has done all to wound her that it can rings true, even though it comes to us like a message from a distant time and place in human history. That feeling is reinforced by the way Synge alternately compresses and expands time, giving the impression that the events in the play have somehow been elevated out of the stream of real life even as they are mired deep in its details.

This is, it seems to me, one of the functions that music performs in opera, and the operatic repeat of Riders confirms that impression.  Where the “out-of-syncness” with “real time” lends the play’s action an air of unreality, in the context of the opera it feels perfectly natural for the music to expand and contract events according to their significance and emotional valence.  The artifice of opera not only makes the play’s manipulation of time feel more “natural,” it also solves the problem (for a modern production of the play, at least) of the keening and wailing mourning women; what seems strange and out of place in the naturalistic world of the play (the sudden invasion of a group of red-petticoat-hooded women into the family home) seems perfectly logical as an operatic device.  And some of the more extreme emotional moments of the play – when the women discover the final son has died, for example – seem easier to “buy” when sung than silently acted.  Seeing the opera directly after the play thus has a strange, unsettling, and provocative effect, as it tugs at the anti-realist threads woven into the play’s hypernaturalist tapestry.  Contrary to what I woud expect, I was more moved by the play than the opera, and yet the opera somehow led me to understand  more clearly what the story is about.

I enjoyed Riders2; I loved Lizbeth.  Apparently, Lizbeth is not strictly opera: the program lists it as a “music drama” (because some of the lines are spoken?). However you want to categorize this combination of text and music, it’s wonderful:  witty, dark, sly, and smart, with a gorgeous modern score that perfectly complements its disturbing story.  The piece opens with a young girl (played by Lauren Boyle) singing the familiar playground ditty about how “Lizzie Borden took an axe, gave her mother forty whacks…” in a minor key; as she sings, the three performers who portray “Lizbeth” at three different stages of her life surround her and ceremoniously wash blood off their hands.  From then on, the child, young adult, and older adult “Lizzie” (played, respectively, by Jillian K. Marini, Erica Olden, and Anna Singer) haunt each other’s moments in time, support each other in moments of crisis, rationalize each other’s actions, and goad each other into committing the heinous crime that made Lizzie Borden legend (although Borden was acquitted, the drama depicts her as guilty of the crime).  As in a Philip K. Dick novel, not only does the past affect the present, but the future already troubles the past.  The effect is mesmerizing, allowing us to see how, late in life, Lizbeth reconstructs her past and writes a parallel history to the “real” events that led up to the moment she “took an axe.”  While the ostensible subject here is an investigation of “why she done it,” the opera’s most perceptive insight into human psychology lies in its cogent exposure of the unreliability of personal narrative and the instability of identity.

The staging of this piece is muscular and dynamic — director Gregory Lehane uses the relationships of the characters to each other in both space and time to capture the dysfunctional family dynamic in images as well as words. Anna Singer is mischievous and delightful in the main role, with a powerful voice and presence, and she’s obviously having a criminally good time with the part.  Also having too much fun is Daphne Alderson, who delivers the juicy role of Lizzie’s uptight stepmother with obvious relish.  Marini and Olden are strong vocalists (as well as actors) in the roles of Young Lizzie and Lizzie, and the cast is rounded out by fine performances from Ray Blackwell and Gail Novak Mosites as Lizbeth’s father and sister.

The “Microscopic” in the company’s title seems to refer to the intimacy of their productions — there is almost no distance between the audience and the action here.  The design team has met the challenges that such intimacy can pose beautifully.  Jonmichael Bohach’s set morphs flexibly from a cramped Aran Island hut to an upper-middle-class Victorian home, and Allen Hahn’s lighting utterly transforms the atmosphere, space, and tone from first to second half.  Ken Chu’s lovely costumes are detailed and specific; in Lizbeth, in particular, his choices help shape the story by underlining the generational clash that fuels the family conflict.  And the superb orchestra, conducted by Andres Cladera, manages the small miracle of not overwhelming the intimate space despite the fact that it occupies almost half of it.

I guess my answer is:  “All of the above.”