Deft ‘Claiborne’ Displays Validity Of Modern Opera

Patricia Racette (Dolores Claiborne) and Wayne Tigges (Joe St. George) in 'Dolores Claiborne' world premiere at the San Francisco Opera. (Cory Weaver)
Patricia Racette plays the vengeful wife in Tobias Picker’s ‘Dolores Claiborne,’ with Wayne Tigges as the brutal husband.
World premiere, San Francisco Opera, Sept. 18, 2014 (Cory Weaver-SFO)
By Robert P. Commanday

Along comes Dolores Claiborne in its premiere at the San Francisco Opera on Wednesday, reassuring us that new opera is really possible. A composer today who can write music for the orchestra that gives another level of meaning to what’s being sung and is at once engaging.

Tobias Picker
Tobias Picker, composer of ‘Dolores Claiborne’

That composer is Tobias Picker, whose restraint, selectivity and invention produced a deft and arresting score. Instead of an explicit and massive orchestration underlying the voices in the film-score manner, there is a chamber-orchestra quality in the writing, two parts dueting here, three parts there, and light applications of color and often lyric, melodious instrumental writing that comments on the dramatic narrative and never covers the voices.

George Manahan’s conducting had everything to do with the musicality, sensitivity and precision that brought off Picker’s achievement.

Happily, Dolores Claiborne counters the couple of unsuccessful works also commissioned and recently introduced here by David Gockley’s San Francisco Opera. Not that this is a happy work – anything but. Stephen King’s novel, the source, offers not a single happy or even admirable character in the story of the working woman who kills the brutal husband who beats her, steals her money and sexually abuses their daughter. But that’s opera – not a lot of laughs in Tosca, I Pagliacci, Madama Butterfly or Janáček’s operas, for that matter.

The libretto by J.D. McClatchy was artfully done, poetic at critical moments, but not, perhaps, as lyrical as might be hoped for.

Patricia Racette as Dolores (Cory Weaver-SFO)
Racette as Dolores, pushed to the limit. (Cory Weaver-SFO)

The cast is excellent, led by the three central women, Patricia Racette as the indomitable Dolores, Elizabeth Futral as Vera Donovan, the excessively rich, overbearing widow tyrannizing her maid Dolores, and Susannah Biller as the daughter Selena (shown both as adolescent and as a grown up, lonely, embittered lawyer).

The production is a gem that James Robinson directed brilliantly. Allen Moyer’s sets make ingenious use of moving elements, the great staircase that figures in Vera’s death, an upper level used for Vera’s great July 4th party (big chorus) and, later, the split stage with Dolores above, the grown up Selena below, lamenting her state. There’s a scene of moving brushy landscape across which Dolores leads her intoxicated husband, Joe St. George, to fall into a well to his death. A scene on the ferry produces the illusion of its progression out to the Maine island where this all takes place, via the moving projection of the other boats and shoreline.

The story keeps returning to the police station scene where an impassive Dolores, swathed in a dumpy brown coat, is being grilled by Detective Thibodeau, the bright, keen-line voiced tenor Greg Fedderley. Convinced that she murdered Joe, though she had been earlier cleared, he is determined to pin Vera’s death on her.

Murder in the eclipse, projections by Greg Emetaz (SFO)
Murder in the eclipse, projections by Greg Emetaz (SFO)

Greg Emetaz’s projections and Christopher Akerlind’s lighting worked eloquently, the full stage image of the ferryboat’s wake conveying the emotional turbulence. It showed the enormous eclipse (of July 20, 1963, dating that early part of the story) being celebrated while setting up Joe’s murder. Wayne Tigges, as the villainous Joe, was a torrent of energy and malignancy, his baritone a driving, penetrating force.

Racette was a heroine in every sense. Despite being still committed to the lead in Boito’s Mefistofele, running now in alternation with Claiborne, she took on the role of Dolores after Dolora Zajick bowed out just weeks ago.

Talk about endurance, courage! Padded to look and act frumpy, the handsome diva sang the role splendidly, and to moving effect. Her aria, “When I was young my daddy took me on this same ferry,” was touching. And she pulled off the role of a tough, hardened woman – “God won’t forgive me but he’s gonna shut his eyes” (sung before the murder).

Elizabeth Futral as Vera Donovan (Weaver-SFO)
Elizabeth Futral as Vera Donovan (Weaver-SFO)

The lovely Elizabeth Futral was a dynamo as the differently tough rich bitch Vera, planting the seed with Dolores for Joe’s murder, “An accident can be an unhappy woman’s best friend,” and the line the other women adopt, “Sometimes being a bitch is all a woman could hold onto.” Futral’s soprano is brilliant, but the part lay too consistently in the stratosphere, so the supertitles really mattered. She was convincing as the aged, helpless, angry invalid. They all sang well, but having all three central women be sopranos was too much. Contrast was wanted.

Susannah Biller as Selena (Cory Weaver-SFO)
Susannah Biller as Selena (Weaver-SFO)

Susannah Biller was remarkable as the 14-year-old frightened, withdrawn Elena, singing sensitively her aria, “A moment ago, but so long ago, it was just another day” – one of librettist McClatchy’s poetic inspirations. As the tough adult, she was remorseless, and her final line, “Everything I did for myself,” implied that perhaps she was not entirely unreceptive to her father’s advances, while Dolores, left standing, sang simply, “I did what I could” as the curtain fell.

The production runs through Oct. 4. For tickets or more information, click here.

Robert P. Commanday, founding editor of San Francisco Classical Voice, was The San Francisco Chronicle Music Critic, 1965-93, and previously conductor and lecturer at the University of California – Berkeley. 

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