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September 22, 2013 9:00 pm
In the arts, third time isn’t always lucky. With its third world premiere in seven months, San Francisco Opera has produced a moderately compelling specimen of musical melodrama, which fails where it counts most, in moulding indelible characters through music. Tobias Picker’s adaptation of Stephen King’s confessional 1993 novel (with a few elements borrowed from the 1995 Taylor Hackford film) has generated a dark odyssey of festering evil, retribution and lost innocence, which moves so swiftly through its multimedia trappings and temporal dislocations that it rarely permits you a moment to reflect on the holes in the narrative.
The material is veristic to a fault. Dolores Claiborne, a Maine housewife, suffers the abuse meted out by her alcoholic and incestuous husband Joe, until, in an act of personal liberation, she engineers his death. But, ironically, she is unjustly detained for the murder of her suicidal employer, with whom she has formed a close, combative four-decade association. A prickly relationship with daughter Selena, which J.D. McClatchy’s spare libretto does not adequately explain, remains an open wound at the end.
Picker’s post-romantic idiom, the lingua franca of American opera these days, mingles endless parlando passages with arias and ensembles that fall innocuously on the ear. Words are well set, but vocal lines hover at the extremes of singers’ ranges. Minor brass chords signify ominous doings. Gentle flutes and strings indicate innocence in peril. Picker’s insidious vocal line for the despicable Joe is a brilliant attempt at characterisation, but Selena’s rhapsodic number during a climactic eclipse is pretty note-spinning, and instead of a culminating aria of self-realisation for Dolores, the opera implodes upon itself.
It might not have happened this way if mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick, for whom the opera was written, had not cancelled last month. Her replacement Patricia Racette delivered a tentative performance, troubled by a role that lies too low for her soprano range. As Selena, Susannah Biller’s promising soprano soared to the heights. Elizabeth Futral’s tart soprano captured the essence of Vera Donovan’s haughtiness. Wayne Tigges’ robust bass-baritone lent the creepy spouse a dignity the character scarcely merited. George Manahan conducted ably in his company debut.
James Robinson oversaw a gripping, fluid, time-travelling production, abetted by Greg Emetaz’s projections and by Allen Moyer’s appealing sets, a series of multi-level dioramas that offered pleasures for the eye that were unavailable to the ear.
Until October 4, sfopera.com
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