Watching the new opera “Dolores Claiborne” is a little bit like going to a good movie. Like one of those Hitchcock films with a really fine score by Bernard Herrmann that underlines the action without being particularly notable on its own, “Dolores” is filled with suspense, murder, sex and violence. Taken from a Stephen King novel, it’s a really gripping yarn. Told cinematically, with short scenes and flashbacks, it’s great to look at. Allen Moyer’s set design, making inventive use of video and multilevel settings is ingenious. It’s enormously entertaining, but is it really an opera?
And do we really care? O.K. it’s not “Aida,” but it is extremely listenable with a few arias and that are truly lovely. But what you focus on is the action and, frankly, you can’t wait to see what happens next. It’s the tale of a plain Maine housewife who works herself to the bone as a maid for the benefit of her abusive husband and the lovely young daughter who harbors a terrible secret. When her husband is found dead, nobody much cares because everybody knows what a miserable excuse for a man he was. But when her employer of 40 years, the rich, self-centered Vera Donovan (a terrific Elizabeth Futral) is found lying at the bottom of a staircase (this is not a spoiler; it happens in the first scene) Dolores ends up in a police interrogation room, fighting for her life.
Patricia Racette, who stepped up to the plate when the originally cast Dolora Zajick pulled out of the production last month, does a great job in the role, looking as dumpy as she does glamorous in San Francisco’s “Mephistopheles,” in which she is simultaneously appearing. This is one hard-working soprano! In addition to Futral the cast also features Wayne Tigges as the husband (he got boos with his curtain call but they were for the character, not his singing) and Susannah Biller as the daughter, Selena. Biller, a former Adler Fellow, has done great work in leads with the small San Francisco Opera Parallele in recent years and this just might be her breakout role on a larger stage. Whether as a frightened teenager or the accomplished attorney she becomes, she inhabits the character beautifully.
“Dolores Claiborne” is episodic, going back and forth in time, contributing to its cinematic quality. We see Vera and Dolores as relatively young women, comparing their unfortunate marriages, and then as old women, clinging together in mutual loneliness and regret. There are strong overtones of feminism in this story of abused, yet resilient, women and it needs accomplished singer/actors to bring them out. Racette, Futral and Biller have what it takes.
There are some notable arias: Dolores’ “When I was young,” Vera’s “I have no future; I have no past,” an old woman’s song of dying despair, and Selena’s “A moment ago,” an ode to a solar eclipse. There also are a couple of nice choruses — of the maids in Vera’s employ and of guests at one of her parties. Greg Fedderly has some powerful moments as the detective who tries to break Dolores down. George Manahan keeps a firm hand on the orchestra but, at the end of the day (sorry Mr. Picker) it’s not so much about the music. “Dolores Claiborne” is a total theatrical experience and, as such, it succeeds beyond a mere operagoer’s wildest dreams.