Friday, September 20, 2013

Daddy Go Into The Well: Dolores Claiborne at the SF Opera

The world premiere of Dolores Claiborne at the San Francisco Opera on Wednesday night was a thrilling, happy surprise. Composer Tobias Picker and librettist J.D. McClatchy took horrormeister Stephen King's 1992 novel about class differences, incestuous child abuse, and a homocidal housekeeper on a Maine island, and stripped it down to a very effective melodrama. Soprano Patricia Racette above somehow managed to learn the long, difficult, and punishing title role in three weeks after the originally scheduled Dolora Zajick bowed out suddenly. It was a complete triumph on her part, intelligently acted, beautifully sung, and with diction so good that you could hear the New England accent coming through. She deserved the standing ovation she received at the end of the evening. (Production photos by Cory Weaver.)

There were unusually good contributions from Set Designer Allen Moyer, Projection Designer Greg Emetaz and Director James Robinson. The production was well thought out as it shifted smoothly from many different locations and decades with the use of varying levels of the set. It was a striking combination of naturalism and stylization, reminiscent of a very good Broadway production, except more expensive.

Besides Racette, the cast was uniformly excellent, which is rare for an opera, and the collaborative ensemble acting elevated the entire production. Bass-baritone Wayne Tigges as the abusive husband and daddy gave a great performance in a role that could be loathsome. He even made the character sexy, which gave the incest scenes with his teenage daughter, played by Soprano Susannah Biller, an extra layer of menace and complexity.

Biller above right gives a breakout performance in this opera. She's convincing both as a teenager whose heart and soul belong to daddy rather than her despised mother, and also as a hardened 40+-year-old Boston lawyer. My only criticism was not with her but the composer, who has a fondness for above-the-staff soprano writing that often sounds shrieky and painful for both performer and audience. When Picker wasn't giving Biller impossibly high lines to sing, her voice sounded exquisite. Other than that, the score sounded better on a second hearing, which is a very good sign, and Picker's mixture of expressionist scene painting and propulsive, quasi-minimalist musical episodes was consistently interesting.

Elizabeth Futral above as the rich old woman with a summer house where Dolores works also gave a sensationally committed performance, but again, the majority of her role was written painfully high. Her scenes reminded me of a visit to New England with my domestic partner's working class family. I suggested a ferry boat ride just for the sake of an excursion on the water, and found an inexpensive boat going from mainland Connecticut to Fisher Island. When I asked a woman on the ferry where we should go for lunch on disembarking, she looked horrified. "You're not supposed to be here. Fisher Island is only for those who own homes and their guests." After thinking for a second, she obviously felt bad. "There is an inn about a mile from the dock where the year-round natives have a pub with food. I'll give you a ride." Dolores Claiborne and her misbegotten family are the year-round natives.

When the opera commission was first announced, it sounded like a disaster in the making. A cheesy Stephen King novel, a composer more respected than liked, and a recent dismal track record of world premieres at the San Francisco Opera did not inspire confidence. The ensuing backstage drama and rumors didn't offer much hope either. So again, it's a very happy surprise to be able to announce that you should get yourself to the San Francisco Opera for one of the next three performances while Patricia Racette is still giving a master class in operatic acting and singing.


Vajra said...

I, too, had low expectations for this opera. Now having seen it, I'm still overwhelmed by the emotion and beauty of the score. And Patricia Racette, already one of my favorites, has now entered the Pantheon.

Your review is spot on. Thank you.

Michael Strickland said...

Dear Vajra: Thanks for the confirmation, and glad you had the same experience. Racette entered my pantheon when I was an onstage supernumerary for two sets of her "Madama Butterfly" productions about five years ago. I usually can't stand "Madama Butterfly" for a whole host of reasons, so that means she REALLY transcended the usual performance levels. But seeing her create a modern role in record time with "Dolores" made me respect her on a whole new level.

ChrisO said...

is it too late to see it?

Michael Strickland said...

Dear Chris: There are four more performances, but you want to see Racette who is only doing two more, on the 25th and 28th this week.

Axel Feldheim said...

Nice assessment. I ended up liking it more than I expected as well. The stage pictures & the performances really did it for me. I completely agree about Picker's vocal lines. I kept gritting my teeth & saying to myself, "It's so high!"