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I led her to a hole, a deep black well.
I said “Make a wish, make sure and not tell and
Close your eyes dear, and count to seven.
You know your papa loves you, good children go to heaven.
You know your papa loves you, good children go to heaven.”

 

I gave her a push, I gave her a shove.
I pushed with all my might, I pushed with all my love.
I threw my child into a bottomless pit.
She was screaming as she fell, but I never heard her hit.
She was screaming as she fell, but I never heard her hit.

—Violent Femmes, “Country Death Song”

Patricia Racette as Dolores Claiborne looks on as townspeople draw her husband's body from the well. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Patricia Racette as Dolores Claiborne looks on as townspeople draw her husband’s body from the well. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Last night, La Maratonista and I took in the world premiere of Tobias Picker’s new opera, Dolores Claiborne, based on the novel by Stephen King with a libretto by J. D. McClatchy. This work was commissioned by San Francisco Opera and co-produced with the Opera Theatre of St. Louis. I tried to read the novel beforehand, but all formats were checked out of the library and none of my holds came through until yesterday. So, aside from knowing it takes place in Maine, I was flying blind.

Dolores on the deck of the Little Tall Island ferry. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Dolores on the deck of the Little Tall Island ferry. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Based on the rumblings I had heard, I had high hopes for this one. However, while there was a lot to love about the performance, I’m not sure how I would rank it in comparison to the other new operas I have seen recently. It didn’t have the lush music of Moby-Dick or the power vocals of Mary Magdalene. However, this family drama was exceedingly well acted and certainly delivered from a theatrical standpoint.

Susannah Biller as Selena, Wayne Tigges as Joe, and Patricia Racette as Dolores in Dolores Claiborne. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Susannah Biller as Selena, Wayne Tigges as Joe, and Patricia Racette as Dolores in Dolores Claiborne. Photo by Cory Weaver.

The title role was played by Patricia Racette, who took over when Dolora Zajick withdrew from the production. Having seen her shine recently as the tragic Margherita in Mefistofele, and in the title role of Tosca last season, I’m starting to wonder if there’s anything she can’t do. Racette breathes life into this working-class character and makes her seem incredibly real; she certainly deserved her many rounds of applause.

I enjoyed Susannah Biller’s performance as Selena, Claiborne’s daughter, but thought that she often sounded screechy. Since I have already heard her sing multiple times, notably as Frasquita in Carmen and Despina in Così fan tutte, I put this down to the composer’s fondness for too-high notes and not Biller’s obvious talent.

Elizabeth Futral as Vera Donovan. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Elizabeth Futral as Vera Donovan. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Rounding out the female leads was Elizabeth Futral as Vera Donovan, Claiborne’s employer and the woman she is accused of murdering. I thought Futral did an exceptional job in portraying the transition from difficult young socialite to difficult elderly invalid. To my ear, it seemed the most “musical” moments happened when she was on stage: the quartet at the end of Act I and her duets and trio in Act II.

Dolores by Vera's bedside after years of service. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Dolores by Vera’s bedside after years of service. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Finally, in what could have easily been a throwaway role, the standout for me was Wayne Tigges as Claiborne’s abusive husband. His menacingly tender “well” song was almost as (if not more) disturbing than the “Country Death Song” cited above. I suppose that’s not surprising from someone who earned my “Best Imitation of a Nazi” for his portrayal of Lieutenant Zuniga in Carmen.

Wayne Tigges as Joe St. George. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Wayne Tigges as Joe St. George. Photo by Cory Weaver.

The staging and set of director James Robinson and designer Allen Moyer deserve particular mention. I loved how they created a stage on stage effect, which worked particularly well for this story, told mostly in flashback over a forty-year period. Projections were used at times and, although unnecessary, mostly to good effect. As I said above, theatrically, there was nothing wanting about this production.

Dolores and Joe's house in Dolores Claiborne. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Dolores and Joe’s house in Dolores Claiborne. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Ultimately, Dolores Claiborne is a dark story and, though I can handle dark, the resolution wasn’t very satisfying and so I was left rather deflated in the end. I think this is partly because Act II could have been tightened up to deliver a more dramatic punch and/or catharsis, but mostly I just didn’t love the score. While there were moments of brightness, as in the maids’ chorus in Act I and the numbers mentioned above, they weren’t consistent enough to draw me in and smooth out the disjointed nature of the narrative. I look forward to seeing if my thoughts on this evolve as I read the original novel.



There are three more performances of Dolores Claiborne at the War Memorial Opera House on September 28, October 1, and October 4. All remaining performances begin at 8 p.m.

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