The New York City Opera’s late October offerings, at one of the 59E59 Theaters, were the New York premiere performances of composer Tobias Picker and librettist J.D. McClatchy’s “Dolores Claiborne” (2013), in a new chamber adaptation, after Stephen King’s 1992 novel of the same name. The second of five hearings, on October 24, is discussed here.
“Dolores Claiborne” tells the grim tale of the eponymous woman, on an island in Maine; her rich and exacting employer Vera Donovan, to whom she is maid, then companion, and overworked health care attendant; and her husband Joe St. George, who abuses her and their daughter Selena. Dolores is implicated in the deaths of Joe and, decades later, Vera.
From King’s nearly 400 pages of psychological thriller, Picker and McClatchy have distilled a gripping two act, two hour American answer to the Italian verismo, or hyper-realistic, operatic style, inheriting the mantle of the likes of Giacomo Puccini, Pietro Mascagni, and Ruggero Leoncavallo. Underpinning much of the score are restless sounds of the sea, which also flows through works of Benjamin Britten.
Expressive mezzo-soprano Lisa Chavez played Dolores as dull and downtrodden or fiery and fierce, as needed, and crowned her portrayal with a full-voiced and full-hearted, haunting aria about her life, love, and loss. High soprano Jessica Tyler Wright was the commanding Vera, encouraging Dolores to take advantage of the darkness of an eclipse to rid herself of her husband Joe, much as she did her own spouse Michael years before, and later lamenting that, wheelchair bound, incontinent, and dependant on Dolores, she is old, sick, and useless. Lyric soprano Lianne Gennaco, as Selena, sang contrasting solos, dreamy and timid, as a child, looking at the stars, and hardened, as a successful, but lonely lawyer.
The principals’ ensembles are among the jewels of the score. The rousing quartet at end of Act One finds Dolores, egged on by Vera, vowing vengeance, as she seems to observe Joe, baritone Thomas Hall, singing a lilting air with a prescient refrain of “Daddy go down a well,” foretelling the doom Dolores plans for him, and urging Selena, the daughter he molests, to sing it with him. In the second act trio, for the three women, Dolores, Vera, and Selena, consider helplessness, hopelessness, co-dependency, and alienation, and agree that “Sometimes being a bitch is all a woman has to hold onto.” Completing the quintet of soloists was high tenor Spencer Hamlin as Detective Thibodeau, insisting that he will find Dolores guilty of murdering Vera, but foiled by Selena’s persuasive argument that there were four decades of true affection between the women. Samantha Sallaway and Joe Isenberg played non-singing parts.
Conductor Pacien Mazzagatti, presiding over a 14-piece offstage orchestra, and director Michael Capasso, devising the staging, galvanized the company into realizing this evening of dramatic intensity. John Farrell’s projections took us smoothly from the forbidding police station to Dolores and Joe’s simple abode to Vera’s mansion to the woods, during the eclipse, to the ferry, connecting the island to the mainland, and to Serena’s classy, icy big city apartment. Janet O’Neill was responsible for costumes; Susan Roth, for lighting; and Georgianna Eberhard, for hair, wigs, and makeup.
Remaining performances, at this writing, take place on October 26 at 7 pm, 28 at 2 pm, and 29 at 3 pm. The company’s web address is www.nycpera.com