New York City Opera 2017-18 Review – Dolores Claiborne: Tobias Picker’s Opera Shocks and Thrills

By Matt Costello

If you were to see The New York City Opera’s production of “Dolores Claiborne” — and I recommend you do, though this sold-out run has just finished –it might be a useful to cite some references that occurred to me.

There were many, and they were diverse.

But just to orient those new to the opera — and its source, the novel by Stephen King — first, the briefest summary of the plot. (Warning: possible spoilers ahead…)

Told in two fast-moving acts, the tale jumps back and forth in time, from what would have been roughly the present when the novel was written, 1992, and also the past, 1963.

Dark and Gritty

On one hand, it’s the grim story of a long-suffering woman, Dolores, who tends to the needs of — as she calls her, “Miss High and Mighty” – the wealthy Vera Donavan. And at the same time she runs a household with her daughter and her drunken brute of a husband, Joe St George.

At the start, signaled by a cutting opening cord, librettist J.D. McClatchy begins with a dramatic enquiry into what looks like a murder of the now-aged employer. In play, the charge that Dolores, pushed over the edge by her demands, does the same to Vera Donavan…sending her flying down the stairs.

Yet, at the same time, it is more centrally the story of the husband, who abuses his daughter in a way that will give anyone following news these days a graphic example of just what said abuse looks like.

To say that it is strong stuff, for an opera, for any medium, is an understatement.

But as Dolores deals with ending that abuse, timed to a solar eclipse that is both metaphor and convenient, the two deaths (one clearly a murder, the other not) as the key themes of life decisions taken, lives transformed, emerge.

Sparse Staging

The staging is sparse.

An elevated platform that will serve as interrogation room and later a well to hide a body. A staircase to an upper level. A simple wooden table. Artful projections cover all the flat surfaces, quickly depicting, through the fast scenes, everything from Vera Donavan’s rich manse to the churning wake created by a ferry taking Dolores and her daughter back to the dismal rock of an island where they live.

Like the NYCO’s recent production of “La Fanciulla del West,” the projected sets and animation are chillingly effective.

References Galore

Dolores “did the best she could,” as sung by Lisa Chavez in a powerful solo that closes the opera. Her daughter saved, becoming a successful lawyer — but the two of them sharing the loneliness of loves and lives lost.

Now, to those references?

And again, what follows are the connections that occurred to me. Yours could be entirely different…

First and obviously is Benjamin Britten’s great work, Peter Grimes. Both in musical tone and also the dark subject matter of the opera, Dolores Claiborne can justifiably be compared to the Britten masterpiece.

The role of Grimes has a match here with baritone Thomas Hall in the tortured role of Joe St. George,

Hall’s powerful voice and truly disturbing performance gives the opera both a mesmerizing and — at the same time — repellent character.

Another quick reference that might occur would be Sweeney Todd. Sweeney sings an ode to his friend (the knife) while Claiborne’s one truly hummable ditty is used by the father as a bit of doggerel to accompany his regular abuse.

Creepy? Yes. But also effective.

And when Chavez as Dolores dispatches her husband under cover of the eclipse, the audience was ready to burst into applause.

The scene, and her thrilling voice were extremely effective.

Other details summoned two more quite disparate musical references. The opera, which premiered in 2013 at the San Francisco Opera, has — for this intimate production — been scaled down from a full orchestra of 70 to a chamber-sized 14.

Sonically, the invisible orchestral is perfect, the sound full, as it weaves and cuts its way through the action. Composer Tobias Picker’s sonic palette had me thinking of Bernard Herrman’s masterpiece, his score for “Psycho.”

Finally, Act one ends in a quartet that roars and soars, the voices filling the small room as tensions mounts, as each character sings of their grief, their loss.

It is a brilliant quartet that – different time, different opera – would have had people crying “bis.”  I definitely need to hear it again.

And Act two features an equally stunning trio as well as duets that reveal the great talent of Picker, NYCO’s composer in residence.

It’s all about Voice

As mentioned, Hall’s rich baritone makes the father both pathetic and yet a totally evil figure. We can feel his threat, the intimidation.

Said method of killing following a line he croons to his daughter, “Daddy goes down the well…”

And indeed — down he goes.

Lisa Chavez as Dolores is on stage throughout the opera, and has to handle the physical demands of dispatching her husband with tense music that conveys both her growing resolution and desperation.

Chavez, quite simply, thrills — and that is in the company of two other stunning voices. Lianne Gennaco as the daughter, Selena, carried off the demands as young daughter and also successful adult lawyer. Her Act two scenes with Dolores were beautifully sung.

Many times I sensed that people wanted to burst into applause at such moments. But the tone, mood and pace of the story held everyone rapt.

And continuing the excess of vocal riches, Jessica Tyler Wright conveys the two aspects of the wealthy Vera Donavan, a forceful woman of wealth turned old. With Dolores as underling, and trapped in her wheelchair with nothing left to live for, she wises to leave life, wants Dolores to help her die.

Startling Language

Also worthy of a mention that you will hear phrases explicitly dealing with said care-taking chores, as well as probably the most beautiful “F-bomb” one is ever likely to hear.

Yet despite the gritty vernacular, the piece still works as opera, as music, and certainly as performance..

The language proved to be both startling, and even funny at times. But it made the opera’s tale all the more real.

Tenor Spencer Hamlin’s Thibodeau made the relentless inquisition of Dolores as suspect compelling, aided by a station house video camera, recording and projecting Dolores evasive answers about her employer’s unfortunate tumbling down the stairs.

Again, in this intimate arena of great voices, Hamlin’s tenor, honed by tackling the high C’s as Tonio in “La Fille du Regiment,” was both moving and biting as the enquiry goes back and forth in time, over two deaths.

NYCO’s Principal Conductor Pacien Mazzagatti led the chamber orchestra with sharp, propulsive power. One forgets that somewhere in the stage there are musicians, so seamless was everything.

If there are any qualms I might have, the material can be so grim it can appear at odds with music. The deeper human themes do emerge, but late in the work.

And when they do, Act two seems, at the end, to offer too many thematic recaps about the three women’s lives the sacrifices, the terrible decisions made, etc.

And since the production doesn’t blink from showing us the ugly and perverse, it can be strong tea indeed.

Shabby little shocker,” a pundit once labeled Puccini’s Tosca.

Like that work, this Dolores Claiborne is certainly a shocker.

And I might suggest that if Puccini had put out his cigarette, and wandered into the theater, for him, whose works were all about the drama, the music, and the voices, I’m sure he’d approve.



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