Composer: Tobias Picker
Librettist: J.D. McClatchy
Conductor: Pacien Mazzagatti
Director: Michael Capasso
Lisa Chavez: Dolores Claiborne
Jessica Tyler Wright: Vera Donovan
Lianne Gennaco: Selena
Thomas Hall: Joe St. George
Spencer Hamlin: Detective Thibodeau
New York City Opera Orchestra
At least no one can fault the New York City Opera for lacking diversity in style, mood or subject matter in its programming. After a playfully dramatic Fanciulla del West by Italian bel canto master Giacomo Puccini, which exploded with infectious melodies, an exotic location and a happy ending as their 2017-2018 season opener, we are now being served a grimly dramatic Dolores Claiborne by contemporary American composer Tobias Picker, NYCO’s current composer-in-residence, that came with an appalling dose of domestic violence, sexual abuse and, for good measure, an accidental death AND a murder.
Although Stephen King’s 1992 psychological thriller and Taylor Hackford 1995 film starring Kathy Bates and Jennifer Jason Leigh by the same name have both been profusely acclaimed, I did not have first-hand knowledge of either of them. I was therefore getting ready to enter the dismal world of Dolores Claiborne (the opera) with a wide open mind, and a lot of curiosity and excitement.
Not to mention that, as if to sweeten the deal even more, my return to the Upper West Side enabled me to take a wonderful, if not particularly peaceful, walk through Central Park down to 59E59’s packed main theater on a gloriously beautiful fall afternoon two days ago.
Although Tobias Picker’s Dolores Claiborne premiered in San Francisco back in 2013, last Sunday was the world premiere of its chamber adaptation. And the significantly down-sized production could not have found a better location than 59E59’s main theater, which is the kind of space so intimate that the fourteen-piece orchestra had no choice but to play backstage, and set designer John Farrell and director Michael Capasso probably had to shift their creative juices into high gear to make everything fit. Even sitting in the furthest seat of the top row house left gave me a very good point of view while the sound came to me bright and clear, the way it should always be.
Fresh from her small but remarkable turn in NYCO’s Florencia en el Amazonas last season, mezzo-soprano Lisa Chavez has quickly moved up to the starring role in Dolores Claiborne and delivered a solidly grounded performance as the middle-aged woman who has never gotten a break in her miserable life on her tiny Maine island. Her highly flexible, impressively wide-ranging voice powerfully expressed the visceral emotions she was going through such as her fierce love for her daughter as well as her unbreakable determination to put an end to their misery. Her luminous aria remembering happier times on the ferry brought a brief moment of unadulterated joy to much put-upon Dolores, and splendid music to the audience’s ears.
As Joe St. George, the lazy, alcoholic and abusive husband and father, baritone Thomas Hall put his raw physicality and dark-hued voice to brilliant use in his ever-combative exchanges with Dolores and in his incestuous relationship with Selena. His suggestively singing a creepy nursery rhyme while molesting his daughter, in particular, was the kind of scene that spontaneously made you feel queasy and want to look away, no matter how tastefully it was handled.
Their child, Selena, was consummately impersonated by soprano Lianne Gennaco, who seamlessly went from tormented and awkward teenager, whose innocence was lost in the worst possible way, to an emotionally challenged adult, even as she became a big shot lawyer. Her big aria, an uneasy ode to the stars, dazzlingly established Gennaco’s excellent vocal skills and Selena’s increasing distress.
Vera Donovan, Dolores’ long-time employer, whose accidental death starts the whole string of flashbacks, was given an occasionally quirky, often cunning and always assertive presence by soprano Jessica Tyler Wright. With her sharp singing and authoritative demeanor, Tyler Wright could have simply turned Vera into the quintessential capricious and demanding nouvelle riche everybody loves to hate, but thankfully the librettist and the singer gave the character more complexity than that.
The production did not have much of a choice but to do a lot with little, and successfully pulled out all the stops in that regard. The going back and forth between the two time periods could have been tricky and confusing, but with a smartly divided and endlessly versatile set, a few essential props, a clever use of projections, and generally well-calibrated blocking, the whole thing went smoothly and was over in barely over two hours, intermission included.
As could be expected considering the sotry, the eclectic score was filled with dark forces and gloomy overtones, with still a traditional aria vibrantly coming up once in a while to perk things up. The orchestra was apparently unfussed by the mix of harsh dissonances and pretty melodies, although it sometimes felt like it was first and foremost putting itself to the service of the libretto, an uncommon but appealing combination of crude profanity and dark poetry, instead of taking the lead and driving the show. But that is a minor squabble, and one likely to disappear overtime.
At the end of the day, this Dolores Claiborne turned out to be totally worth seeing and fully justifies the by then already almost sold-out run it is enjoying. Way to go, NYCO!