LENOX -- Strauss turned the Electra story into shocking, bloodthirsty opera in his 1909 "Elektra." Jack Beeson gave the idea a whack -- literally, in view of the brutal axe murder and scream in both operas -- in his 1965 "Lizzie Borden," which played at Tanglewood Thursday night in stripped-down, modern-dress version.
The comparison between operas is inevitable but probably unfair. "Lizzie Borden," based on the famous ax murder of Lizzie's father and stepmother in Fall River in 1892, is one of the more durable American operas, and Boston Lyric Opera is giving it currency with a version that condenses the original three acts plus epilogue into one act of seven scenes. The angular, expressionistic vocal and instrumental writing lies closer to Berg than Strauss, but the work deserves revival.
The Lyric Opera cast of six, as called for in the original, was excellent, and would probably have been even better in a production that steeped itself in late 19th-century repression and jealousy instead of vaguely modern catatonic states. As Lizzie, Heather Johnson gave a psychologically penetrating portrayal that ranged from love to fear to guilt and culminated in a horrifying mad scene.
The mostly bare stage of Ozawa Hall was canted forward, with a large, tilted projection of a 19th-century house as a backdrop. From the start, an ax was conspicuously planted into a breakfast-style table, awaiting action.
From that point on, compromises were necessary to compensate for a partial production skirting period style. (The performance was based on a full staging the company presented last fall in Boston.) In Christopher Alden's conception, people -- except for Lizzie and her stepmother, Abigail -- walked about, lay on the floor and made hand signals like zombies.
Only Lizzie was fully human, though she was made into a frump. Her sister, Margret, spent most of the time hunched over and clutching her head like an autistic child.
The father, Andrew, was a stock bigot, money-grubbing, platitude-spouting and rigid. To make sure you didn't miss the point, stepmother Abigail became your standard-issue platinum-blond, chain-smoking, foot-rocking tootsie and gold digger.
The opera (with a libretto by Kenward Elmslie) assumes Lizzie's guilt in the double murder, though she was acquitted at the trial. The murders themselves become less important than Lizzie's states of mind leading up to and after the climactic moment -- and in those scenes Johnson almost made the evening a show of one, despite the tight ensemble singing.
Before seizing the ax, she huddled under the table, whimpering. For the act itself, lights flashed and she let out a primal scream. The rivalry between the sisters for the man Margret ran off with, Captain MacFarlane, became vivid at the end.
The opera ended as it had begun, with a children's chorus (VOICES BOSTON, formerly the PALS Children's Chorus from Boston) singing from a balcony. Only now, the kids were singing not the Sunday school hymns from the start, but a laughing mockery of the lonely, scorned woman who had taken an ax and given her parents all those whacks.
David Angus ably conducted a Lyric Opera ensemble, which was placed off to one side of the stage. As the bitchy stepmother, Caroline Worra emitted screeches and pranced around the stage like a shrew recalling Strauss' Herodias. The others in the cast -- Chelsea Basler as Margret, Omar Najmi as Reverend Harrington, Daniel Mobbs as Andrew Borden and David McFerrin as Captain MacFarlane -- sang sturdily but were cast, figuratively if not literally, in shades of gray.
It was good to have "Lizzie" back despite the compromises. It's some kind of landmark in American opera.