Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

Desperate living


Patricia Racette (Dolores Claiborne) and Wayne Tigges (Joe St. George) in San Francisco Opera's Dolores Claiborne.
Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
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Tobias Picker''s new opera Dolores Claiborne, libretto by poet J.D. McClatchy based on the novel by Stephen King and latest in a series of commissions for the San Francisco Opera by General Director David Gockley, has finally received its world premiere. It has also beaten some pretty fierce odds just by getting the singers onstage and the curtain up. That constitutes a triumph of sorts, regardless of artistic success and word on the street, and early reviews echo the many sighs of relief and shouted kudos that started immediately after the exciting opening night.

From the very get-go, there have been skeptics and detractors, starting with the choice of Stephen King for a source. After the string of lukewarm receptions given Gockley's previous commissions (some downright duds), could this latest venture from a bestselling but decidedly sensational popular author possibly succeed with the, how shall we say, slightly more highbrow opera crowd? Putting on a new opera isn't cheap, either. At least King (who reportedly has shown little or no interest in the project) gave the rights at auction for only one dollar.

So the production team was assembled; sets, costumes and lighting designed; and then, well into rehearsals, the star mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick (for whom the role was composed) withdrew for health reasons. Talk about ramping up the anxiety level!

Meanwhile, in another part of the War Memorial Opera House, soprano Patricia Racette, a local favorite and genuine diva in her own right, was preparing for dual roles in Boito's Mefistofele. Racette has worked with Picker before, originating the title role in his Emmeline, but how could she possibly step in with just three weeks to go and keep her commitment to Mefistofele?

Known for intelligence, stamina, vocal allure and drive, the young Meryl Streep of opera said yes to the first four performances of Dolores, and dropped some performances of the second role in Mefistofele. That's trouper with a T. It also saved the premiere of what has turned out to be one of Tobias Picker's most interesting and dramatically effective works.

I asked another audience member on opening night whether he had read the book, and he took my curiosity as an insult. "Do I look like I would read Stephen King?" he hissed. Considering his sales figures, I thought the author's demographic was pretty broad, and I confess to admiring the tour de force first-person narrative of Dolores Claiborne the novel. Apparently, librettist McClatchy shares my estimation, for he has stuck much closer to King's original story than the movie version with the remarkable Kathy Bates. In two tightly constructed acts, he and Picker tell the frightening and woeful story of a hardscrabble blue-collar heroine with a big mouth who is trapped in desperate circumstances. The feminist implications of the plot are boldly portrayed with words and music that move swiftly, with strong, agitated, sometimes overwhelmingly poignant effect.

Patricia Racette (Dolores Claiborne) and Susannah Biller (Selena) in San Francisco Opera's Dolores Claiborne. Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Ironically, there would be more subtlety to the title role had her wise-ass humor and vulgarity been given more prominence. Oh yeah, you probably won't be hearing the f-word, or bitch, or ass-wipe again anytime soon in the opera house, but McClatchy has reduced this incarnation of Dolores to basically two modes of expression: anger and self-pity. Racette is aces in the victim department, and she is one furious mama in the violent episodes with her monstrous, child-molesting husband Joe St. George (a real star-turn from bass-baritone Wayne Tigges), but she isn't allowed the added complexity of character a few laughs might have provided.

That Tigges actually makes Joe rise above pulp-fiction bad-guy is a testament to his craft, but it also shows McClatchy is capable of adding texture. With Picker's mottos for each of the main characters in the mix, it makes for a fully realized portrait.

As the brittle society widow and employer of Dolores with dark secrets of her own, soprano Elizabeth Futral is remarkable at lending nuance to Picker's horrendous demands on her top register. She transcends the painful shrieking to make Vera an understandable albeit crazy old bat.

The other major part belongs to young soprano and former Adler Fellow Susannah Biller as Selena St. George. She is also forced to the extreme at times by Picker's cruel tessitura, but she also has the luxurious opportunity to sing a beautiful aria in the second act that adds depth to her role.

Tenor Greg Fedderly is forced to sing at the top of his voice much of the time, too, as the interrogating Detective Thibodeau, and he gets through the assignment as best he can. It doesn't make his character more than a plot device to get Dolores going, however.

And oh, how Racette gets Dolores going. All the technical demands and crazy background story that got her into the part aside, she makes a genuine triumph onstage. Would I still like to see her role more completely inhabited? Yes. Still, when one lets go of the nagging wish that a mezzo could take the lead, Racette gives one of her trademark characterizations that completely erase her far more glamorous self, and make us believe completely in whatever she is doing.

Picker goes all Puccini on us with Dolores' wistful final aria, and we know that this is truly Racette territory. It might be a little jarring in context, but it also makes us marvel at their combined professionalism and artistry.

The swift and cinematically inventive direction by James Robinson, with the highly evocative sets of Allen Moyer, lighting by Christopher Alkelind, and wonderful projections by Greg Emetaz set the seal on a production that will certainly grow stronger as the run progresses. I have every intention of returning to hear Catherine Cook (who is a mezzo) sing the final performances.

Racette, Picker and McClatchy get the cheers, and Gockley gets congratulations for believing in a compelling winner.


Dolores Claiborne continues in repertory at the War Memorial Opera House through Oct. 4.


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