‘Dolores’ a new, bold, tragic opera

The San Francisco Opera took a big chance commissioning a work on an unsavory, repulsive subject — and achieved something exceptionally memorable.

The premiere Wednesday night of Tobias Picker’s “Dolores Claiborne” presented the unblinking treatment of a bleak tragedy. Stephen King’s novel is about abuse of a wife and child, murder, sustained loneliness and despair among ordinary people — not in opera’s comfort zone of gods, kings and mythical heroes.

Picker’s complex, brilliant music is an essential component of the drama, eventually providing a measure of catharsis for the audience, if not for the characters themselves.

Just as Picker — working with J.D. McClatchy's libretto, Allen Moyer's impressive sets and James Robinson's direction — overcame overwhelming odds, Patrica Racette as the title character triumphed over a seemingly impossible challenge: She stepped into the long, difficult role only a few weeks before the premiere, after Dolora Zajick withdrew from the production.

Racette sang faultlessly and marvelously through the opera's two hours, even after making one of numerous appearances in “Mefistofele” the night before. In glorious voice, holding nothing back, she also impressed with convincing stage presence and her usual excellent diction.

The instant transformation of a glamorous opera star into the frumpy, downtrodden and abused housekeeper, trying desperately to save her daughter from incest, is a theatrical coup.

Conducted by George Manahan, the orchestra had a principal role, underlying the vocal lines or seeming at variance with them. Wildly and fascinatingly eclectic, Picker’s music has jagged edges and uses different voices and styles; it’s a first-class work.

In a few arias and Dolores’ final scene, the quality of vocal writing meets the level of the orchestral, but otherwise the sound from the stage is often harsh, bordering on ugly — most likely in an attempt to mirror the story.

The great soprano Elizabeth Futral as Vera Donavan, Dolores’ demanding boss, and theatrically brilliant novice Susannah Biller as Selena St. George, Dolores’ daughter, heroically handle the impossible high tessitura written for them. It’s not their fault they sound screechy. Their acting, however, is admirable.

Even though “ugly music” might be expected for the abusive, loathsome character of Dolores’ husband, Joe, Picker gives bass-baritone Wayne Tigges a few measures of quiet singing sandwiched between the hulking, threatening sounds he produces so convincingly.

Greg Fedderly as the caricature of a detective makes an impression; Adler Fellows Marina Harris, Laura Krumm, Renée Rapier, Jacqueline Piccolino, Hadleigh Adams and A.J. Glueckert shine in ensemble numbers.


Dolores Claiborne

Presented by the San Francisco Opera

Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F.

When: 2 p.m. Sept. 22, 7:30 p.m. Sept. 25, 8 p.m. Sept. 28, Oct. 1 and Oct. 4

Tickets: $23 to $385

Contact: (415) 864-3330, www.sfopera.com

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