Dolores Claiborne an Earnest Failure

United StatesUnited States Tobias Picker, Dolores Claiborne: Soloists, chorus and orchestra of San Francisco Opera, War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco. 18.9.2013 (HS)


"Dolores Claiborne," Act I: Claiborne's house (photo: Corey Weaver
“Dolores Claiborne,” Act I: Claiborne’s house (photo: Corey Weaver)

Dolores Claiborne: Patricia Racette
Selena St. George: Susannah Biller
Vera Donovan: Elizabeth Futile
Joe St. George: Wayne Tigges
Detective Thibodeau: Greg Fedderly
Conductor: George Manahan
Director: James Robinson
Set Designer: Allen Moyer
Costume Designer: James Schuette
Lighting Designer: Christopher Akerlind
Projection Designer: Greg Emetaz *
Chorus Director: Ian Robertson



On paper, it looked good—really good, this operatic adaptation of Stephen King’s 1992 novel, Dolores Claiborne. The tale seems ripe for opera: there’s murder, or maybe not. An abused wife ends up estranged from the daughter she tried to save from a creepy, molesting father. Now she stands accused of murdering her longtime employer and late-in-life companion.

Oh, the conflicting emotions. Oh, the melodrama. Oh, the opportunities for crackling scenes and soaring music.

Even the withdrawal—three weeks before the opera’s debut Wednesday—of Dolora Zajick, the volcanic mezzo soprano for whom the role was written, didn’t seem so bad when it was announced that Patricia Racette, one of today’s most affecting singing actors, would shoulder the part. (Zajick had not recovered sufficiently from knee injuries and cited the part’s vocal challenges as well.)

Allen Moyer’s ingenious sets place the action at several levels, allowing marvelously detailed scenes to flow smoothly in a frame that stretches across the stage like a wide-screen movie.

All for naught. Tobias Picker’s colorless music and the poet J. D. McClatchy’s awkwardly paced libretto rob nearly every scene of vitality. Opera is supposed to be driven by the music, but this one just limps. It’s not the post-Romantic harmonic palette, but lack of rhythmic vigor and melodic zest.

Maddeningly, Picker has shown that he knows how to write for the theater. His operas Emmeline (1996) and An American Tragedy (2005) vibrate with energy. Here he writes endless parlando, singing speech that seldom offers even a flicker of melodic interest. The orchestra rarely adds or comments on the action on the stage, just keeps grinding away. Scenes peter out instead of ending with clarity; when they transition to the next scene, the music seems to meander awhile instead of flowing seamlessly. Interludes in between offer more interesting music, but, if there are leitmotifs or signature gestures buried in there, they are so unmemorable that they make no impact. The one ear-catching piece of writing is a sort of insinuating nursery rhyme that the father sings when he wants the daughter.

From time to time, other moments suggest what might have been. Early on there’s a jaggedly bouncy chorus of maids introducing a young Dolores to the capricious ways of Vera Donovan, the rich widow for whom they work. Full-scale arias take full advantage of the high soprano voices of Susannah Biller (as Selena, the daughter) and Elizabeth Futral (as Vera). Although both of these pieces were affectingly sung, they neither drove the story forward nor elaborated on the characters.

One moment that did is a scene on a ferry when Dolores surprises her young daughter. Deducing that her husband is molesting her daughter, Dolores reminisces about how things were. There’s also a trio for them and Dolores. It’s beautifully crafted but it exposes a crucial tradeoff in pinch-hitting with Racette. While all of Dolores’ music technically lies within her range, it’s obvious that Picker was counting on Zajick’s molten low notes to create tension in that trio, and in the music throughout. Racette can’t sing those notes with the same power. The whole role lies lower than Racette’s usual fare (Butterfly or Marguerite in Mefistofile, which she is singing currently in repertory here).

So, despite Racette’s admirable attempt to create a flesh-and-blood character and her yeoman’s work learning the role in three weeks, her portrayal feels incomplete. Mezzo-soprano Catherine Cook, the cover, no doubt can bring more power to those notes when she sings the last two performances in October.

Picker isn’t entirely to blame, either. McClatchy’s libretto fails to show how Dolores’ relationship with Vera evolves from imperious master and fearful servant into two old rivals finding comfort in each other—or, for that matter, why Selena would hate her mother so much when her father is molesting her. (Hint: In the book it’s because Dolores can only discipline her while daddy can show her the love she needs.)

As Selena, soprano Susan Biller finds canny ways to look like a budding teenager and, as a grownup, portray a successful attorney. She sings her music with affecting poignancy. As Vera, Futral goes for a classic rich socialite, and grapples successfully with her endless high notes.

Tenor Greg Fedderly had to reach for a lot of high notes too as Detective Thibodeau, his only character arc expressing increasing frustration. Baritone Wayne Tigges cuts a menacing figure as the father, Joe, and wields a powerful baritone, although a tendency to emphasize final consonants made me wonder if he thought he was singing Wagner’s German instead McClatchy’s vernacular English.

The 15 scenes, divided into two acts, use virtually none of the added story lines in the 1995 film starring Kathy Bates. The libretto follows King’s original novel, a monologue in which Dolores tells her story while being interrogated for Vera’s death. We see the fall down the stairs portrayed in the first scene.

In the foreground onstage is the drab police station. A partition opens into a cinematic window, positioned at various points above the stage. The window irises open and closed to reveal Vera’s mansion, the bungalow Dolores shares with husband Joe St. George, outdoor scenes and a breathtaking portrayal of a total solar eclipse.

Frustratingly, missed opportunities abound. Vera, who has gotten away with murdering her own husband, has the best line of the opera (and the book): “Accidents can be an unhappy woman’s best friend.” Vera says it to Dolores to suggest how she might deal with Joe. But the line hardly registers. Other composers might have made that into the pinnacle of a gripping exchange between the two women.

The final scenes ramp up the musical and dramatic level noticeably, including some potent outbursts by Racette, who gets a chance to sing in a more comfortable range. The power of her voice finally carries the day. But it’s too little too late.

Harvey Steiman