Although opera, as a genre, is easily celebrated for its capacity to move and transport an audience, it is rare to be emotionally disturbed by one. Tobias Picker’s Dolores Claiborne, which received its world première by the San Francisco Opera this week, achieves such a feat. In doing so, it will certainly garner notoriety, both as well-deserved praise and well-deserved condemnation.

Patricia Racette (Dolores Claiborne) and Wayne Tigges (Joe St. George) © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
Patricia Racette (Dolores Claiborne) and Wayne Tigges (Joe St. George)
© Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

In recent years, there has been a welcome shift in American opera away from abstract concepts toward an emphasis on narrative. Nico Muhly’s recent work Two Boys unfolds as a gripping mystery, while in The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, premièred in San Francisco in June, the spotlight shone not on Mark Adamo’s music but on the controversial story that challenged the axioms of Christianity. Dolores Claiborne fits squarely in this new school of opera, where every aspect of the production is geared to leave the audience rapt within a powerful tale.

Set in rural Maine, the opera is essentially a character study of the eponymous Dolores, performed by soprano Patricia Racette, who has been accused of murdering her longtime employer. With a crass, irascible demeanor, she declares her innocence to Detective Thibodeau (Greg Fedderly) with insults and vulgarity. But this is merely the frame; the true story of the opera – the tale of Dolores’ struggle with the abuse she and her daughter Selena (Susannah Biller) are dealt by Dolores’ husband.

Patricia Racette’s portrayal of Dolores is at once powerful and fragile. In Dolores’ first onstage encounter with her husband Joe – a despicable character portrayed effectively by bass-baritone Wayne Tigges – Racette delivers tender melodies with irony. This is suitable, for there is an undercurrent of fear as she teases her husband who suddenly erupts in anger and strikes her with a scrap-wood club. As both characters brood in the low end of their vocal range, Racette displays remarkable mastery of a part originally intended for a mezzo-soprano. Her control and clarity are tempered when necessary (even adding a slight New England accent to her singing voice), and the nuance of her performance is all the more impressive given that she stepped into the roll just weeks ago.

Despite some terrific performances, the music itself is largely bland. Among the many scenes of violence demanding dramatic music, most were greeted with a few dissonant chords followed by silence. In the two conventional yet somewhat out-of-place arias, Picker’s orchestration is muddy, transforming lovely vocal lines into something of a blur. Conductor George Manahan (making his San Francisco Opera debut) added much clarity and power, but only so much could be done. Conversely, the music handed to Elizabeth Futral, as the shrill murderess Vera Donovan, is almost cartoonish in its liveliness. Possibly the most touching musical moment comes, ironically, when Biller as Selena sings for a few short seconds unaccompanied. The beauty of the moment, however, quickly turns to discomfort as she sings to her father, “Daddy go up. Daddy go down. Daddy goes into the well.” Any subtlety of the lyric quickly evaporates as Joe begins to molest Selena on stage. With his hand up her dress and hers in his lap, little is left to the imagination.

Much more satisfying, musically, are the brief interludes of English horn melodies floating over densely written strings appearing between scenes. It is here that the music seems most nuanced and worth paying attention to. The intersecting inner voices here contain a balanced complexity that urges the audience to give the rest of the score a second chance. It is also here where the effectiveness of Greg Emetaz’s video projections is most apparent, presenting the rustic setting of a remote island as a key aspect of the story.

The decision by director James Robinson to employ gratuitous sexual violence created a powerful, unforgettable scene. But it left the aftertaste of a gimmick. Placing such a climactic scene at the midpoint of the production led inevitably to an underwhelming second act. What started as an intense, character-driven narrative transformed into something much more ordinary in the second half. This was partially redeemed by a grand final number, but the memory of the real climax inevitably predominates.

In many way, Dolores Claiborne is a great success. With a lean and well-adapted libretto by J.D. McClatchy that discards some of the unnecessary elements of Stephen King’s novel, this story of a woman doing whatever she has to do to ensure her daughter’s survival is compelling. Even if the liberal portrayal of violence was not strictly necessary to tell the story, it certainly made a lasting impression. What could have been a little more daring, however, is the music.