Stephen King and Opera Go Together Like Peanut Butter and Arsenic

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A Stephen King novel is really weird source material for an opera. Honestly, it would be a strange choice even for a musical, as evidenced by the notorious Broadway flop Carrie, which was eventually retooled into a respectable off-Broadway hit decades later (and will have its much-belated West Coast premiere with San Francisco's Ray of Light Theatre in October). Nevertheless, San Francisco Opera now unveils its commissioned world premiere Dolores Claiborne, based on the King novel of the same name, composed by Tobias Picker (Emmeline, Fantastic Mr. Fox)

Even among the prolific horror writer's works, Dolores Claiborne is a curious choice, because the story's much more intimate than epic. All told in one meandering first-person monologue, it's the story of a lifetime housekeeper and caretaker on a small Maine island, the murder she's accused of, and the other one she actually committed long ago. (That's not much of a spoiler, because she spills the beans on that right off the bat in the book, though the opera is coyer about it.) The feisty Dolores holds court in her confession to the local police with lots of hold-your-horses chiding to the cops she's known since they were kids and just-us-girls asides to the stenographer. She gets around to the gruesome stuff eventually, but not until you've heard more than you ever wanted to know about the proper way to hang up bedsheets to dry.

The 1992 novel was made into a 1995 movie starring Kathy Bates, and in fact the book reads like it was written specifically to be made into a movie with Bates, who'd recently won an Academy Award for her role in Misery. It's all written in folksy, somewhat cutesy dialect with lots of colorful exclamations like "gorry" and "jeezly-crow," making it easier to picture Bates speaking it than to actually read it on the page. ("And if you don't like it, Andy Bissette, you can write it up on your T.S. list and mail it to the chaplain," Dolores says in a fairly typical line.)

The titular drudge is played by soprano Patricia Racette, an acclaimed company mainstay who also costars in SF Opera's current production of Arrigo Boito's Mefistofele and who stepped in when mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick withdrew from the role of Dolores less than a month ago. Racette is performing the first four shows, whereupon Catherine Cook will take over for the last two. Racette sings the role awfully well, despite the fact that it's a generally unpleasant part to hear, with lots of short, sharp wails of pathos.


Susannah Biller (Selena), Elizabeth Futral (Vera Donovan) and Patricia Racette (Dolores Claiborne)

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Picker's score is very dramatic in a way that's more cinematic than operatic, with lots of blurting horns and stabbing strings. Sometimes this dramatic attack is terribly effective, such in the haunting act one finale, but because the story is boiled down to a few dramatic highlights, the result is that almost everything is given this extreme emphasis, which considerably dilutes its impact. A couple of rhapsodic "Isn't the sky pretty" arias are thrown in for a change of pace, which don't illuminate the plot or characters much but offer some small relief. It's delightfully insidious that the most pleasant, tuneful part of the whole opera is the creepy little song that Dolores' abusive drunkard of a husband (effectively sinister and rich-voiced bass-baritone Wayne Tigges) sings when he's up to something nasty.

One particularly clever touch in director James Robinson's staging is that it takes the police interrogation literally as a framing device, with the flashback scenes that make up the whole story taking place within an opening and closing window while a silent stenographer and uniformed officer watch silently from the foreground. Set designer Allen Moyer has a field day with the elegant manor where Dolores works, the cramped shack where she lives, and surprisingly long rolling sets for the outdoors. Added to this are projected backgrounds by Greg Emetaz establishing exterior shots of buildings and the Maine landscape, almost always in gloomy shadow.

J.D. McClatchy's libretto dispenses with some of the sillier elements of King's novel: the terror of dust bunnies, the gratuitous psychic glimpses of an otherwise unrelated character from another one of his books. Unfortunately it also introduces a host of dramaturgical problems. The fact that Dolores doesn't fess up to her earlier crime right away makes it awfully strange that the police let her ramble on and on about her home life seemingly unrelated to the charge they dragged her in for. The police detective played by honey-dipped tenor Greg Fedderly is depicted as eager to nail Dolores for the death of her employer, the wealthy Vera Donovan, but he just shrugs off the actual decades-old killing his quarry owns up to as irrelevant, as if there were some statute of limitations for murder.


Patricia Racette (Dolores Claiborne) and Wayne Tigges (Joe St. George)

Relatively short for an opera, just a little over two hours, Claiborne speeds through the highlights of the story in rough chronological order, missing some of the connections that the original stream-of-association narrative makes clear. For instance, while soprano Elizabeth Futral is pleasingly over-the-top in her haughty airs as Vera Donovan, we only see her in the few scenes in which she shows unexpected (and uncharacteristic) understanding to Dolores. We get no sense of how malicious Vera could be the rest of the time, nor why Dolores says she hated her. There's also a pointless and nonsensical revelation about Vera that seems to come out of nowhere.

Soprano Susannah Biller gives a marvelous turn as Dolores' daughter Selena, sweet in her youthful innocence and sympathetic in adult discontent. Selena's part has been fleshed out considerably for the opera, which is especially interesting because her one big moment in the original story is underdeveloped in this version. Picker and McClatchy even make her a lawyer instead of a journalist so that she can play an active part in the final act.


Patricia Racette (Dolores Claiborne) and Joel Sorensen (Mr. Pease).

The real problem at the heart of the opera is that it misses the point of Dolores Claiborne as a character entirely, the indomitable spirit that makes her such a pain in the rear. The Dolores of the opera is curiously passive. When King's Dolores finds out something abominable is going on to someone she cares about, she has to go put a stop to it immediately by any means necessary. The operatic Dolores just sighs and frets and lets the horribleness continue until someone else suggests that maybe she could actually do something to stop it. In the book Dolores imagines Vera telling her, "without your guts, Dolores Claiborne, you're just another stupid old woman." In fact she's far from stupid, but portraying her as a brooding victim rather than a difficult heroine makes the story feel smaller and less operatic than it already did. When Dolores sings a closing aria best summed up as "Eh, I tried," she may as well be speaking for the creators themselves.

Dolores Claiborne runs through October 4, 2013 at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco. For tickets and information, visit sfopera.com.

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All photos c. Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera.