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Biller, Futral and Racette in the world premiere of Dolores Claiborne at San Francisco Opera
© Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
Racette as Dolores Claiborne
© Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
With its lurid atmosphere of abuse, rage and murder, Dolores Claiborne was an apt choice for a new work of American verismo. That's what was promised when San Francisco Opera commissioned composer Tobias Picker and librettist J. D. McClatchy to adapt Stephen King's 1992 novel, and it's what was delivered on opening night of the company's world-premiere production at the War Memorial Opera House (seen Sept. 18.) Conducted by George Manahan, directed by James Robinson and starring a magnificently focused Patricia Racette in the title role, the opera preserved the oppressive atmosphere of violence and despair in King's tale of a Maine domestic worker driven to extremity by the cruelty of her husband, Joe St. George, and her employer, the wealthy Vera Donovan. Picker's impressively large-scale score builds tension with insinuating motifs, helter-skelter rhythms and gripping climaxes; the plot turns on Joe's molestation of their daughter, Selena, and Picker signals the crime with a lilting song that foreshadows the harrowing retribution to come. The composer saves his best for the trio of women — rhapsodic arias for Dolores and Selena, a couple of brisk numbers for Vera — and Act I ends with a gorgeous quartet for Dolores, Vera, Joe and Selena. Apart from a few revisions — the omission of Vera's postman, the change of the older Selena from journalist to lawyer — McClatchy's beautifully crafted libretto hews to the novel's outline, employing the police interrogation into the deaths of Joe and Vera as a framing device while opening the story and fleshing out the characters in eminently theatrical terms.
Manahan, striving for balance and forward thrust, conducted a fervent, illuminating performance, and Robinson's staging was first-rate, making canny use of Allen Moyers's split-level set, Christopher Akerlind's lighting and Greg Emetaz's projections to evoke fog-swept Little Tall Island, the ferry to Vera's estate, the claustrophobic interior and scrubby yard of the St. George home. The plot twists posed significant directorial challenges, but Robinson and his design team met them with convincing results.
The cast was superb. Racette, replacing the originally scheduled Dolora Zajick (who withdrew from the production in August, by mutual agreement with the company), summoned her apparently limitless vocal and dramatic resources in the title role. Looking distinctly un-glamorous in a dowdy brown coat and head scarf (costumes by James Schuette) and singing with plush, expansive tone, the soprano created a rough-hewn character of pathos, intelligence and a beleaguered nobility, one that recalled nothing so much as her brilliant Jenůfa for this company in 2001. Soprano Elizabeth Futral was a vibrant presence as Vera, and Susannah Biller, despite some strain in the role's upper reaches, was an affecting Selena. Bass-baritone Wayne Tigges made an aptly scabrous Joe, tenor Greg Fedderly imparted an aggressive edge to Detective Thibodeau, and Joel Sorenson delivered a contemporary sort of modern patter number as the bank manager Mr. Pease. Nikki Einfeld, Jacqueline Piccolino, Marina Harris, Laura Krumm and Renée Rapier sang prettily as Vera's maids, and Robert Watson, A. J. Glueckert, and Hadleigh Adams offered a smart comic turn as the upper-crust party guests Cox, Knox and Fox. A significant new work, Dolores Claiborne was a triumph for all concerned — and a milestone for Racette, who had opened in San Francisco's Mefistofele just days earlier. Operagoers were already calling 2013–14 the "Racette Season"; the soprano will return to the company in June to star in Show Boat and Madama Butterfly.
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