Sept. 22, 2013
At first blush, Stephen King’s novel may seem an unlikely foundation for an opera, perhaps because opera has drifted into the category of “fine art,” whereas King’s gory, supernatural novels have long occupied the world of popular culture. “Dolores Claiborne,” however, is a more psychological, mystery-based work, and as such makes a more-than-satisfying basis for Tobias Picker’s new opera.
The production begins in cinematic fashion: a brief film of an old woman falling down the stairs, followed by the continuation of an apparent murder, her housekeeper poised above her with a candlestick, acted out on a screened mini-stage. (The use of these quick-opening sub-stages continues throughout the production, enabling a fluid approach to the narrative.) The action moves to an interrogation room, where Detective Thibodeau (the remarkably high-voiced tenor Greg Fedderly) grills housekeeper Dolores Claiborne (Patricia Racette) on the demise of her boss, Vera Donovan (Elizabeth Futral). Instead, Dolores takes us a quarter-century back, when she was married to an abusive drunk, Joe (bass-baritone Wayne Tigges) who had a more than passing interest in in their daughter Selena (soprano Susannah Biller).
Tobias Picker’s approach shows a real dedication to story, even to the extent of employing elements that might be deemed (gasp!) old-fashioned. In laying out the extremity of Vera’s control-freak nature, for instance, he constructs a fugue of harried housemaids over a bed of frenetic low strings. In revealing Joe’s dark intentions toward his daughter, he concocts a playful song over marimbas (“Daddy go up, Daddy go down”) that is both creepy and (a little unfortunately) tremendously catchy. Picker offers a handful of provocative ensemble pieces, including a quartet in which Vera and Dolores hatch an “accident” for Joe while, on a separate stage, Joe seduces Selena.
Another retro feature is the presence of authentic solo set pieces. In “When I was young,” Dolores reflects on her childhood, when the sun would turn the ferry’s wake into gold, an image illustrated by a swell of piano and sweeping strings. The most remarkable piece is for Selena, who takes in the wonder of a solar eclipse even as her father is meeting with his ill fate. The song is lyric and spare, affording Biller the opportunity to indulge in meticulously shaped dynamic lines (a classic bel canto practice that has nearly disappeared in modern opera).
Picker may be at his best, however, in moments of suspense and conflict, which King’s story supplies in spades. Joe’s leitmotif is a swirl of woodwinds and strings that seems forever on the edge of chaos, a device that finds its end in a heart-stopping fight with Dolores, who sees the ax in his hand and says, “Go ahead, Joe – make the first one count.” (Dark humor is a regular feature of J.D. McClatchy’s libretto, especially Vera’s pronouncement that “Sometimes being a bitch is all a woman has to hold on to.”)
Patricia Racette’s strong lower range is a good match for Dolores, a role originally written for mezzo Dolora Zajick. Racette, who also originated roles in Picker’s Emmeline and An American Tragedy, carries the opera with her portrayal of Dolores’s stoic-yet-explosive nature. Soprano Elizabeth Futral makes fearless attacks on Vera’s stratospheric vocal flights, and gives the opera its primary enigma with her loveable/hateable character. Tigges plays Joe in a burly fashion, both vocally and dramatically, giving us a villain so despicable that his demise garners its own applause. Biller’s singing is crystalline and lovely, especially in her Eclipse Song, and she makes an extremely convincing transformation from teenager to 40-year-old lawyer.
The opera’s only flaw is a distinctive lag following Joe’s departure. The only mystery remaining at that point is Vera’s demise, and McClatchy’s libretto turns to reflection and philosophizing. This slowdown may, in fact, be more of an impression than a reality, owing to the pace set by the taut, Hitchockian first act.
James Robinson’s direction, along with set designer Allen Moyer’s array of sub-sets, lends the production a cinematic quality apropos to a King tale (there’s even a reference to Shawshank Prison that will please the movie buffs). The most fascinating visual is Dolores’s backyard, a rolling set that seems to go on forever as she leads Joe to her secret cash-stash. Greg Emetaz’s projections add to the flow, particularly a view of a Maine waterfront that seems to make the ferry set bob up and down. Conductor George Manahan led the orchestra in a sharp, propulsive reading, with occasional moments that were surprisingly lilting. It was amusing to hear occasional swear words sung, and then see the matching supertitle without them. Perhaps a legal strategy?
Through October 4, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. $23-$385. www.sfopera.com, 415/864-3330.
Images: Patricia Racette as Dolores Claiborne. Susannah Biller as Selena, Racette as Dolores and Elizabeth Futral as Vera. Wayne Tigges as Joe. The ferry set. Photos by Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera.
Michael Vaughn is a 25-year opera critic and author of the novel Operaville, which is free on Amazon Kindle Sept. 24-25.