Picker’s darkly poetic “Dolores Claiborne” makes powerful impact at City Opera

Mon Oct 23, 2017 at 12:48 pm
Lisa Chavez in the title of Tobias Picker's "Dolores Claiborne" at New York City Opera. Photo Sarah Shatz

Lisa Chavez performs in the title role of Tobias Picker’s “Dolores Claiborne” at New York City Opera. Photo Sarah Shatz

Contemporary pieces have been a major focus of the rebooted New York City Opera. Sunday afternoon saw another success in that department, with the presentation of Dolores Claiborne by Tobias Picker, NYCO’s composer-in-residence, in a new chamber adaptation by Picker himself.

Adapted from Stephen King’s novel of the same name, Dolores Claiborne is a relatively brief but powerful two-act drama. At the outset of the opera, we find the title character being interviewed by a police detective investigating the death of Vera Donovan, for whom Dolores worked as a maid for decades. Though Vera’s death was an accident, over the course of the drama we learn that Dolores killed her husband Joe during a solar eclipse, after he had beaten her and molested their daughter, Selena, for years—a murder for which she was arrested but never convicted.

J. D. McClatchy’s libretto is a heady mix of the plain and the poetic: while much of the text is laced with profanity, at times it reaches towards a powerful image, as when Dolores, just before the eclipse, observes that “God’s gonna shut his eye” during the murder. The roughness of the language is a strong defining element in her character, even if Picker’s decisions about the setting are at times a bit odd: for instance, “bitch,” perhaps the most frequent word in the libretto, has a percussive force when spoken in conversation, but Picker chooses to set it on a held note more often than not.

Directed by Michael Capasso, the company’s impresario, the NYCO production makes inventive use of the limited space at 59E59’s main theater. A railed balcony serves as both the second floor of Vera’s house and the deck of a ferry. Interiors are defined by the bare essentials of furniture, but the character of the space is mostly achieved through the projection of different wallpapers onto the set walls.

There is a good deal of darkness in Picker’s score, as is to be expected given the subject. Act I opens with a dramatic sting of winds and strings, like something out of a noir thriller, placing us right in the cold sweat of the precinct station interview. In anxious scenes like this, Picker falls back on a palette of jarring, bristling discord that is effective at creating atmosphere but grows wearisome in large doses; he shows a particular fascination, too, with shrieking high notes, making the female vocal parts murderously punishing on the performers.

Picker has a strong ear, though, for striking effects: in a particularly moving scene in the first act, a deep pulse of bassoon and strings evokes the melancholy lapping of the waves against the side of the ferry on which Dolores and Selena are passengers. As their exchange becomes more and more fraught with emotion, the pattern seems to suggest an insistent heartbeat, or troubled sighs. At times, Picker surprises the listener by launching into something approaching a full-bodied romanticism, offering up tender melody over a rich bed of strings.

It’s in moments like these that the trade-off of the reduced version becomes apparent: though reducing from a seventy-piece orchestra to fourteen gives the work a feeling of intimacy that fits the scale of the story, parts of the score really do need a full complement of strings. It didn’t help, either, that the musicians of the NYCO orchestra, under Pacien Mazzagatti, sounded unsure of themselves.

Mezzo-soprano Lisa Chavez led the cast with a brilliant performance in the title role. Hers is not a voice of especially rich color, but it is a spacious instrument, and flows easily through the part’s many lyrical lamentations. Dolores is a troubled character, no question—profoundly unhappy, abused by her husband, pushed to violence, she finds motivation only in her care for Selena, who cannot forgive her. The emotional, lyrical apologia with which she closed the opera was intensely moving.

Every bit as engaging, though of an entirely different mould, was Jessica Tyler Wright as Vera. She showed a bright, sharp soprano, and gave a portrayal dripping with self-regard, a picture-perfect suburban martinet. Wright dazzled with her tripping arpeggios in her deliciously glib Act I aria, instructing Dolores that “accidents can be an unhappy woman’s best friend.” The force of her personality makes her eventual decay into a loveless old invalid, imprisoned in her wheelchair, breathtakingly poignant.

Lianne Gennaco was excellent as Selena, another character with a wide arc. The victim of Joe’s worst abuses, she has few chances to find joy in her childhood, save one remarkable aria in Act II, expressing her wonder at the eclipse in bright, tender tone while her father lies dying in the well. Later, a grown woman and a successful Boston lawyer, she has a very different sort of scene, expressing her fundamental, existential dissatisfaction through hard-edged music.

Thomas Hall was vicious as Joe St. George, bellowing with an enormous, woody baritone. There’s not much room for sympathy with Joe, but Hall’s honest portrayal made the character breathe. Spencer Hamlin sang with bright, taut tenor as Detective Thibodeau, a fact-finding officer who seems a little too zealous in the execution of his duty.

Dolores Claiborne runs through October 29 at 59E59. nycopera.com

One Response to “Picker’s darkly poetic “Dolores Claiborne” makes powerful impact at City Opera”

  1. Posted Oct 27, 2017 at 7:59 pm by misha

    it was excellent!!! must be VERY hard to sing when the music does not support the vocal line, even when the score itself is remarkable. .

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