Tobias Picker’s 2013 Dolores Claiborne in a recent chamber reduction is serving to introduce opera to Boston University’s year-old Booth Theater. Based on Stephen King’s malevolent eponymous novel, the BU Opera Institute show tells of spousal abuse, murder, incest, class warfare, alienation, and angst in cussword-laced interactions of brutal husband and too loving father Joe, hectoring and abused wife and mother Dolores, damaged, dolorous daughter Selma, and judgmental detective Thibodeau.
Picker’s jagged vocal lines departed only a few times from shtick: twice into mad scenes and three or four times into lyricism. We even had the makings of passion chorales in a trio and a quartet, but the composer quickly turned tail each time, as if misgiving any melodic impulse. Awkward octave leaps, screeching, and in general, the application of learned modern voice writing to working-class vernacular grated. Does anyone really need to hear relentless profanities lingering high above the staff?
Because of the Maine island setting, the detective (think Starkeeper), myriad polished stars, and even a soliloquy, the opera almost summons Carousel, although King’s novel has more of the grittiness of Hammerstein’s source, Molnár’s dark and cynical Liliom. Within the school of heightened naturalism, Weill could have made something more chewily ironic of this tale, Mascagni could have done it juicier justice, and Zola would have deepened the psychology of the four unappealing characters. But Picker was right to shy away from a silver lining. Unlike Billy Bigelow or Tosca, the murderess Dolores finds no redemption.
Stage director Jim Petosa, in his last show for BU, took a minimalist approach to staging in the super-adaptable 250-seat black box. He placed the chamber orchestra in an open pit 12 feet below the angled slat stage and somewhat downstage. An attractive synthetic Maine spruce anchored us to woodsy place even when the characters boarded the ferry or argued in the prosecutor’s office. Black cubes served as tables and chairs. A woodpile concealed booze and weapons, including an essential, never-used ax. Chandeliers visited to indicate shack or mansion. A slow-moving disc supplied an eclipse, and mirrored balls produced the magical star scene. A circular trap, noticeable to anyone who had done his homework, opened onto a slow elevator for both the much-foreshadowed well murder and the “assisted” suicide by staircase.
Marcella Barbeau’s lighting design greatly expanded the spectrum of the grisaille set though story-attentive effects such as slanting afternoon sun, Penobscot Bay waves, golden glow emanating from the deep well, warning lights under the floor slats, action defining spots and fill and that memorable starry eclipse.
The handout included a King-branded synopsis, but no reference to acts and scenes in the opera. Nor did the unflinching (SF Opera apparently purged the profanity) projected titles indicate acts or describe settings. Because of the many changes of scene and chronology, this lapse jarred.
The graduate student singers, every one with a serviceable voice, took to the tessitura unstrained. Megan Callahan in the title role showed indefatigability. As the wealthy Vera, Julia Wollcott generously shared her big lustrous sound. Emilie Faiella, the serially raped daughter, Selena, gave herself over affectingly in the showstoppingly scary duet with her father, “Daddy goes up, Daddy goes down, Daddy goes into the well.”* As the bruiser, Frank Rosamond looked and sounded Kowalskiesque. Why is it, though, that every stage brute needs to be seen in a sleeveless T-shirt and the victims in gingham? And why did Petosa seem to abstract the violent interactions? Other productions one can see on YouTube come with wallop; it’s not enough anymore to yell fuck in a crowded theater.
William Lumpkin led a respectable contingent of 15 students including string quintet, winds, brass, harp, piano, and percussion. The sound-absorbent walls did no favors for the strings, but the rest of the contingent, and certainly everyone in the tuttis, made a sound in the space as least as satisfying as 40 pieces in an operahouse pit. The band effectively animated Picker’s striking instrumental colorations, intimations of doom, and evocations of conflicting emotions, providing characterization and variety that the vocal writing lacked.
The dark, dry Booth Theater shows little inevitability for opera beyond lab / workshop dimensions. Though the instruments and voices balanced well from where we sat in the shallow balcony, railings obscure the views of all on that level. Also, theatergoers seemed to avoid the first four rows of the floor rather than crane their necks to watch the raised stage. Other configurations may offer useful benefits and exact different costs. Too bad BU sold the elegant if tired Huntington Avenue Theater.
Picker’s work for Dolores Claiborne probably could be heard to better effect in the background of a music video with strong actors and vivid locations, maybe a graphic remake of the strangely satisfying 1995 film version. Last night’s show gave little pleasure, yet with more spit and rage from the singers, it just might have worked, and perhaps the second cast will catch fire.
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Sunday’s cast brought combustibility and nuance. Leroy Y. Davis came across with a Billy Bigelow swagger and enough attractiveness of vocal production and stage presence that one could understand why wife and daughter might once have desired him. Yet he also conveyed the dangerous other side to the personality of Joe. The title role as portrayed by Rebecca Printz stretched the dimension of the character into a recognizably human realm. Her warm top never shrieked, and her tall stage persona made for believable confrontations with a bullying husband. Plus, in her interactions with her wealthy employer Vera, she managed to portray an appropriately subservient domesticity as well as a simmering anger. As Vera, Ashlee Lamar found a comic side to her “glitter and be gayish” ode to useful accidents for husbands. She also brought big mezzo fire to bear. Having hear only the first act, I cannot speculate how Ann-Marie Iacovieelo handled the transition from vulnerable juvenile to resentful woman, but she certainly found just the right perfectly pointed voice for the damaged ingenue Selma. Eric Finbarr Carey (Detective Thibodeau) needs to trust his instrument and relax his nerves. He found little subtlety in the not very subtle part, though he got the words across.
Click HERE for a portfolio of Andrew Brilliant rehearsal photos follows.
Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer