Dolores Claiborne is Tobias Picker’s fifth opera. Commissioned by the San Francisco Opera (SFO), it was given its world premiere this past Wednesday and its second of six performances yesterday afternoon in the War Memorial Opera House. The libretto by J. D. McClatchy is based on the novel of the same title by Stephen King, a dark narrative that had been made into a film directed by Taylor Hackford in 1995. This was not Picker’s first venture into American fiction at its most uncompromising. His preceding opera, with a libretto by Gene Scheer, had taken on Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy under a commission by the Metropolitan Opera.
There is much to be said about the dramatic impact of Picker’s new opera. That would have to include the high-impact performances of the leading characters, Claiborne herself (Patricia Racette), her daughter Selena St. George (Susannah Biller), her brutal husband Joe St. George (Wayne Tigges), and her employer Vera Donovan (Elizabeth Futral). It would also include the imaginatively meticulous detail that James Robinson brought to the staging, including his deft management of a narrative that skillfully discloses the plot line through many peregrinations back and forth across the timeline.
In the midst of all of those virtues, however, there stands Picker’s score, which has so skillfully translated into music not only the voices of King’s characters but also the sense of place that is so fundamental to how the plot unfolds. The novel is set on the fictitious Little Tall Island, one of those small islands off the coast of Maine that is accessible only by a ferry from the mainland. The island sports a large and opulent mansion, the Donovan home, a playground for the rich built in the same spirit as the stately manors associated with Newport, Rhode Island. Such an abode demands a small army of servants, many of whom live in far more humble dwellings on the island for the sake of being close to their work.
Little Tall Island is thus a tightly enclosed space, as narrowly confined in spirit as it is in geography. An outsider would call it claustrophobic. Those who can think of little more than escaping the island (such as Selena) would agree.
Picker has skillfully applied a keen sense of dissonance to capture that sense of claustrophobia that cannot be ignored in considering the motives behind the acts of the characters we encounter in King’s story. Picker is as capable of summoning thick orchestral textures as he is in bringing transparent clarity to key moments in the narrative. His rhythms can be disquietingly uneven, only to then focus on the intensity of a basic pulse to underscore a character’s emotional disposition. Most importantly, over the course of two acts making for a performance of about two and a half hours, he maintains a general sense of flow that leads the listener through the episodic structure of the libretto with the same smooth seamlessness of the elegant set changes conceived by Allen Moyer and directed by Robinson.
This is highly original music. Yet Picker’s sense of motif, even when built around dissonant content, reveals itself to the attentive listener and readily establishes a basic sense of familiarity. There is also skillful awareness of the impact of vocal sonority. Both Selena and Vera have very high-register parts, suggesting, in a metaphoric way, that they are “above” the “working folk” on the island (like Dolores and her husband). At the same time, there is a sense of strain in that upper register, particularly in Vera’s voice, suggesting that even the better off have trouble coping with the claustrophobia.
For all of that originality, however, there are occasional hints of appropriation, which seem to bring brief moments of comic relief to the intensity of the plot. The most explicit of these involves the first extended scene between Vera and Dolores after the big lawn party on Vera’s estate. For the first time Vera drops her guard as demanding employer and suggests that she and Dolores can now use first names. She also plants in Dolores’ mind the thought that “accidents can be an unhappy woman’s best friend,” the idea that will lead Dolores to kill her husband as punishment for having molested Selena. In this scene Vera’s melodic line goes tonal, following the descending triadic pattern that Wagner gave to the wood-bird in Siegfried as the bird guides Siegfried to the sleeping Brünnhilde. For Wagner, this was a motif that would shape Siegfried’s destiny for the rest of his Ring cycle; and, in King’s novel, the impact of this encounter with Vera on Dolores’ destiny is no less.
(That lawn party, by the way, sports three drunk “swells,” named Mr. Cox, Mr. Knox, and Mr. Fox. It is hard for any opera lover to look at these three stereotypes of buffoonish prosperity and not be reminded of Ping, Pang, and Pong. Picker even occasionally interleaves their voices with at least a trace of Turandot nostalgia!)
Since all of the above is the product of a “first listening,” I suspect that it only scratches the surface of the breadth of imaginative skill that Picker has brought to the score of his new opera. In that respect, it is also important to credit conductor George Manahan (making his SFO debut) for bringing such a clear account of that score to those of us in the audience for whom listening to the music is as important as following the drama unfold through the vocalists. The overall result is a thoroughly engaging, albeit highly disquieting, examination of passions at their most raw revealed through music. The remaining performances will be at 7:30 p.m. this Wednesday, September 25, and at 8 p.m. on Saturday, September 28, Tuesday, October 1, and Friday, October 4.